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Amir opens Arab summit with call to end disputes – Meeting struggles to heal rifts – Furore over vacant Syria seat

(Left) HH the Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah (Right) Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz (right) and Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani

(Center) HH the Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah (Right) Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz (Left) and Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani

KUWAIT: HH the Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah yesterday opened the Arab summit by urging the 22 member states to heal rifts and describing the Syrian conflict as the largest disaster in modern history. "It is sad that disputes have expanded in our Arab nation and are endangering our aspirations and ambitions," Sheikh Sabah told the opening session of the two-day summit. "We are required to resolve these disputes and seriously work toward unifying ranks ... the dangers around us are too grave" Sheikh Sabah said.

The summit follows an unusual dispute within the Gulf Cooperation Council alliance of Gulf Arab states over Qatari support for Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, and a spat between Iraq and Saudi Arabia over violence in Iraq's Anbar province. Gulf states tend to keep their disputes private, making a move by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain this month to recall their ambassadors from Qatar highly sensitive. Kuwait has offered to mediate: Shortly before the gathering Sheikh Sabah, smiling broadly, stood between Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz and Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, holding hands with them in an apparent attempt to convey a mood of reconciliation.

But the summit did not tackle - at least publicly - inter-Gulf disputes, as foreign ministry undersecretary Khaled Al-Jarallah reiterated yesterday that the "Gulf disputes will be dealt with within the Gulf house". Prince Salman left the country a few hours after addressing the opening session of the summit. He was followed later by Sheikh Tamim. Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy told reporters it was not possible to forge a compromise with Qatar during the summit because "the wound is too deep".

Sheikh Sabah described the Syrian conflict as the biggest humanitarian disaster in modern history, while the emir of Qatar blamed the Syrian regime for the continued bloodshed and for the failure of the Geneva II peace talks. The Saudi crown prince said in his speech that the international community has betrayed the Syrian opposition.

The main focus of the summit was Syria's vacant seat, with the opposition blasting an Arab decision to keep the seat empty although the head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition Ahmad Al-Jarba was invited to address the summit. In his address, Jarba wondered what prevented the Arab League from handing Syria's seat to the opposition, and said this would send a message to President Bashar Al-Assad "to kill". "Let me say quite frankly that keeping Syria's seat empty sends a clear message to Assad that he can kill and that the seat will wait for him after resolving the war," Jarba said.

He also called on Arab leaders to stand with the Syrian revolution, saying it is fighting on behalf of the Arab nation, strongly lashing out at Iran and Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah. Jarba said that he was not asking Arabs to declare war against the Syrian regime and its Iranian backers, but to put pressure on the international community to fulfill their pledges to provide sophisticated weapons to the Syrian rebels. He also called on Arabs to boost aid to displaced Syrians inside the country and Syrian refugees in neighbouring Arab nations.

The annual summit of the 22-member Arab League also heard an appeal from the UN peace mediator for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, for an end to the flow of arms to the combatants in the war, which has killed over 140,000 people and displaced millions. Brahimi did not name the suppliers, but Saudi Arabia and Qatar are believed to be the main Arab funders of military assistance to rebels in Syria, while non-Arab Iran is the main regional power backing Assad.

"The whole region is in danger" of being dragged into the conflict, Brahimi said, calling for renewed efforts to find a political settlement to the crisis, now in its fourth year. Brahimi urged a revival of peace talks. "I call upon Europe, the United Nations and the United States to take clear steps to reactivate the Geneva talks," which broke off on Feb 15. "There is no military solution," stressed Brahimi.

Saudi Crown Prince Salman, whose country is a key backer of the Syrian rebellion against Assad, said the international community was "betraying" the opposition by failing to arm them and leaving them as "easy prey". A solution to the conflict, in which regime forces have recently made significant advances, requires a "change in the balance on the ground to end the impasse", he said. National Coalition spokesman Louay Safi said rebels needed urgently "anti-aircraft missiles" to fend barrel bombs which activists say regime forces have been raining down on fighters and civilians alike.

Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim criticized Iraq's Shiite-led government and Egyptian authorities in his address, a move that is likely to add a new layer to tension in the region. Sheikh Tamim also renewed calls for a small Arab summit to be held try to resolve differences between the militant Hamas group, which rules the Gaza Strip, and the Western-backed Fatah group in the West bank. Qatar supports Hamas.

Sheikh Tamim said he hoped that stability in Egypt would be achieved through "a comprehensive dialogue" between the government and all parties - an apparent reference to the blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood. "We wish Egypt, our elder sister, political stability and all the good for its people," said Sheikh Tamim. "We stress on the brotherly links we have with Egypt," he said.

Without naming Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, Sheikh Tamim criticized what he said were attempts to sideline entire segments of that Arab nation, a reference to Iraq's Sunni Arab minority. His criticism of Iraq's government follow recent comments by Maliki in which he accused Qatar and Saudi Arabia of supporting Sunni militants in Iraq. "It's about time for Iraq to emerge from the vicious circle of violence and differences. That cannot come about through the sidelining of entire society segments or accusing them of terrorism if they demand equality and inclusion," Sheikh Tamim said.

Several speakers during the summit's opening session also blasted Israeli policies, with the Arab League chief delivering the most scathing criticism. "The Israeli occupation of Israel is equal to the apartheid system. It is the last stronghold of colonialism in the 21st century and runs against the progress of history," Nabil Al-Arabi told delegates. Before him, Prince Salman said Israel's policies undermine any hope toward a peaceful settlement, including the construction of Jewish settlements and "insisting on the Jewishness of Israel".

Participants said there were differences over Qatari support for the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, how to deal with the Syria crisis and how to define "terrorism" in the region. "Behind closed doors there is tension, but it's all under the table, no confrontation was made (in public)," one of the diplomats said. "There are clear divisions over what Saudis and the Qataris think." In another sign of brewing discord, some delegates said it was possible the summit would take the rare step of not issuing a final communique, suggesting consensus was proving elusive. Another diplomat said: "There were heated remarks about Egypt behind closed doors. Qatar has made comments about how things should happen in Egypt and Egypt says it is for them to decide."

By B Izzak and Agencies

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This article was published on 25/03/2014