On Sunday Arab leaders are scheduled to meet in the Saudi city of Dammam for a summit that is likely to focus intensively on Iran.
Not that Iran was ever going to be low on the agenda.
Arab diplomats say Saudi Arabia had insisted Iran’s regional machinations be addressed but now, as the situation in Syria escalates and the confrontation between Iran and Israel is increasingly unmasked there, Iran will consume more of the attention of Arab leaders than was originally planned.
On Tuesday the Israeli press was loaded with suggestions the country’s military is adopting a more aggressive approach towards Iran in Syria. The Jerusalem Post went so far as to announce in a headline that there was “no more a shadow war” between Israel and Iran.
On Sunday Israel attacked an airbase in Syria that was hosting foreign troops fighting for the Al-Assad regime.
According to the official Iranian news agency, four Iranian advisors were killed.
The attack came less than 24 hours after chemical weapons were allegedly used against civilians in Douma, one of the last strongholds of anti-regime militants, with most fingers pointing to the Al-Assad government as being responsible for the assault.
US President Donald Trump promised prompt and “major” retaliation for the Douma attack by “animal Assad”.
Russia, whose major military presence in Syria supporting the regime further complicates the equation, claimed the Israeli attack heralded “very serious developments” and said that it was addressing the issue with Israel.
“It is a very serious situation. Things could easily escalate. It is not like previous occasions when there have been limited Israeli attacks against Iranian facilities usually related to Hizbullah in Syria. This time it looks like [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu has decided to forcibly move the parameters of any future Iranian presence in Syria and it is very disturbing,” said an Egyptian official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
According to the official, regardless of who wins or loses the Israeli-Iranian confrontation in Syria, it will serve only to destabilise the country.
“Nobody, not even the Americans who are threatening military action against Syria or the French who are encouraging it, has a clear scenario about removing Al-Assad or replacing the regime with something more stable. So what we are talking about is more confusion — an open proxy war between Iran and Israel and a less explicit proxy war between Russia and the West.”
“This is the nightmare scenario that we must avert,” warns the official.
Foreign diplomats in Cairo say there is a flurry of diplomatic contacts across the region, and in the UN’s New York headquarters, to try to reach a consensus among the leading players in the Syria.
One well-informed source said that these consultations include direct appeals from some Arab leaders to Tel Aviv to exercise caution.
According to one regional diplomat, the message being sent to Netanyahu from Arab capitals is that the situation could spin out not just in favour of Iran and Hizbullah but also of Islamist and anti-Israeli camps in the Arab world that are already protesting what they see as the “lax” Arab response to Palestinian protests in Gaza.
“They say any escalation in Syria could eliminate the chances of talks that could end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict being launched, talks which the Arab Summit was supposed to support,” says the diplomat, “though I’m not really sure they understand Netanyahu’s priorities.”
Abbas Kamel, senior political and security aide to President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, visited both Ramallah, home of the Palestinian Authority, and Tel Aviv last week in a bid to lay the ground for the Arab summit to adopt a resolution expressing willingness to engage with the planned US peace scheme. Saudi and Emirati officials have also been consulting with Palestinian and Israeli officials on the same issue.
The aim of the talks, both announced and un-announced, is now not only to persuade Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to approve of the launch of settlement negotiations but to convince Netanyahu to exercise restraint before what he sees as the perfect opportunity to deal a blow to Hizbullah and limit Iran’s presence in Syria.
On Monday the UN Security Council met to discuss Syria. On Tuesday, as Al-Ahram Weekly went to print, diplomats in New York were holding another round of consultations with a scheduled Security Council session expected.
Arab and foreign diplomats who spoke to the Weekly agreed the situation would be managed one way or the other before Arab leaders arrive in Saudi Arabia for their summit. Already there are intense Arab talks on the matter, and discussions were scheduled for Tuesday evening (Middle East Time) between Trump and the Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad, French President Emmanuel Macron and Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman who is currently in Paris. Consultations are also already underway between on-the-ground Syrian players Russia, Iran and Turkey.
Whatever understandings are reached as a result of these talks will be reflected in the Arab Summit.
The Arab Summit, says an Arab League official, was expected to be tense given that it would be the venue for the first encounter between Qatar — Doha has yet to announce the level of Qatari participation — and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain since June last year when the four allies instigated their diplomatic embargo of Qatar.
The summit is being held in the absence of any breakthrough in the stand-off between Qatar and its Gulf neighbours and Egypt and after Washington called off, at least for now, a summit Trump had planned to host for the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
The biggest concern now, say Arab diplomats, is whether the delegations of the conflicting countries will attempt to pin their positions on developments in Syria and exchange accusations over siding with non-Arab regional players, be they Iran, Turkey or Israel. Any tit-for-tat accusations could also spill over to include support of militants in Syria, and in Libya.
Kuwait, the current Arab member of the UN Security Council which has been attempting to mediate and contain the fall-out of the dispute between Saudi Arabia and the Emirates on the one hand and Qatar on the other, has been stepping up consultations in an attempt to ensure the Arab Summit ends without further escalation on either the Arab Gulf or Syrian fronts.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly