Syrian families who fled to Lebanon wait for buses to go back to Syria from the southern village of Shebaa, Lebanon April 18,2018. (Reuters)
The US, British and French attack on Syria over the weekend was the real elephant in the room during the one-day Arab Summit meeting held in Saudi Arabia on Monday.
While the Arab leaders listed the various challenges that face the region, topped by the crimes committed by Israel against innocent Palestinian civilians in Gaza over the past three weeks and the illegitimate decision by the Trump administration in the US to recognise Occupied East Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, there was hardly any mention of the unjustified Western attack on Syria, even though it took place only one day before the Arab leaders held their meeting.
The host country and other Arab nations had openly supported the tripartite Western strikes against three sites in Damascus and Homs, and it seems that the Arab leaders simply decided not to discuss the issue at the summit.
This was probably to avoid bringing their disputes to the surface in a meeting that only lasted a few hours.
It was both significant and important that Saudi Arabia announced its commitment to supporting the Palestinian cause at the summit, rejecting US President Donald Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy to Occupied Jerusalem and dedicating $200 million to supporting Palestinian refugees and their historic rights in the city.
However, it was also certainly bizarre, as well as sad, that there was hardly any discussion among the Arab leaders of the Syrian catastrophe that has resulted in the deaths of nearly 500,000 people over the past seven years and the displacement and forced migration of millions more.
The only exception, according to observers who followed the summit meeting, was Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi who did not avoid setting out where Egypt stood on Syria in his speech or on the many dangers facing the Arab world.
Countries could differ on the parties responsible for the ongoing Syrian disaster, particularly on the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, he said, but what could not be disputed was the fact that the Arab countries have collectively failed the Syrian people and allowed other regional and international powers to be the real decision-makers.
Worse, some Arab countries, in cooperation with influential regional powers, have gone so far as to provide support for terrorist organisations in order to serve their own narrow goals. Al-Sisi sorrowfully noted that an important meeting had been held to discuss Syria without any Arab presence, leaving that task to Turkey, Iran and Russia at their recent meeting in Ankara.
Without naming Turkey, Al-Sisi added that it could not be acceptable for its troops to occupy parts of two Arab countries, Syria and Iraq, allegedly to fight against Kurdish rebels.
While several Arab countries have felt threatened by Iran’s rising influence in the region, including in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, perhaps they should ask themselves what the Arab countries have done on a collective level to counter the growing Iranian presence.
The US president, his French counterpart, and the British prime minister did not consider Arab reactions when they decided unilaterally to bomb empty buildings in Damascus and Homs, allegedly because they were sites producing chemical weapons. They were far more concerned about Russian and Iranian reactions because it is these two countries that have troops on the ground in Syria.
Al-Sisi left no doubt about Egypt’s strong opposition to the use of chemical weapons in the ongoing Syrian conflict, describing any such use as a war crime.
However, the decision to hold the Syrian regime responsible for the atrocities committed in Douma must not be left to the Western countries alone, he said, but should be made following an independent and credible international investigation, something which Cairo fully supports.
The ugly reality that Al-Sisi drew attention to in his speech at the Arab Summit was that the Arab world and the region as a whole have never witnessed such dangerous times since the liberation movements from British and French colonisation in the 1950s and 1960s as they do today.
Several Arab countries have disintegrated, and outside powers now determine the fate of Arab populations in some cases more than their own governments.
If Arab summits are to be of any use, those present should concentrate on how to restore the independence of the Arab countries and the rights of Arab nation-states.
This must be the number one priority for all future meetings.