Saudis use summit to isolate Syria,
Iran By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
"To examine the situation in many
countries of the Islamic world, intensify efforts
to confront this situation, address the sources of
discord and division therein, reunify the Islamic
Ummah and promote Islamic solidarity."
That is how Saudi Arabia's leaders
initially justified their decision to hold a
special meeting of the Organization of Islamic
Cooperation conference (OIC) in Mecca this week -
their actions since suggest their real intention
was to use the OIC as part of their crusade
against an embattled Damascus and their 'cold war'
On Monday, foreign ministers
at the OIC decided by majority vote to recommended
the suspension of Syria, which was expelled from
the Arab League last November. The proposal is
be implemented by the
57-member organization at a meeting on Wednesday.
The decision was openly contested by Iran
on the grounds that this would simply "erase the
[Syrian] issue", to paraphrase Iranian Foreign
Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, who is accompanying
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad at the conference.
Ahmadinejad's expressions of hope for a
"meeting of Islamic unity" at the summit in
retrospect seem wishful thinking. Instead the
meeting has produced a minor shock for Iranian
diplomacy as the country gears up to host the
summit of Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran at the
end of August.
However, Ahmadinejad's trip is still bound to generate some cracks in the robust edifice of Saudi-Iran hostility, which alone may be worth the trip - regardless of its side-effects - one of which has been Ahmadinejad's noticeable absence in areas affected by the recent earthquake.
According to a Tehran
University political science professor who spoke
to the author on the condition of anonymity, the
Iranian delegation to the OIC meeting "may feel
cheated a little bit because [Saudi King Abdullah
Bin Abdul Aziz] personally invited Ahmadinejad and
assured Iran the goal was to promote Ummah unity,
not to score foreign policy success against Iran
Indeed, it is doubtful that
Iran would have participated at such a high level
at the OIC summit if it had prior knowledge of the
real intention - to prioritize the expulsion of
Syria, Tehran had expected the OIC to initiate
genuine conflict mediation efforts aimed at
fostering a cease-fire and political dialogue
between the warring parties.
to a closed system of government that clamps down
on internal dissent, Saudi Arabia has taken a bit
of risk by spearheading Syria's expulsion. Critics
may also point to how Riyadh sent troops to
neighboring Bahrain to quell a mass revolt for
democracy, and to the crucial military and
financial support it has sent the Syrian
opposition despite clauses in the OIC Charter that
forbid intervention in the internal affairs of
other Muslim states.
Beyond the formal
decision to expel Syria, which will have little or
no effect on the balance of forces inside the
country, the important question is what role the
OIC could actually play that would contribute to
an end to the crisis.
The answer is simply
conflict mediation. If the OIC wills it, there is
a tremendous potential for the "pan-Islamic"
organization to play a catalytic role in
initiating much-needed political dialogue between
the government and the opposition, as was called
for by the UN's six-point plan that was pursued by
the special representative, Kofi Annan, and can
still be pursued by his replacement, Lakhdar
Brahimi. It does not bode well for the OIC if
Saudi Arabia's leading role in it is simply to
completely ignore the UN peace plan and opt
instead for a confrontational approach.
Iran is by no means alone in actively
pushing for a mediated settlement of the Syrian
crisis. Several other Muslim nations which
participated in last week's Tehran meeting on
Syria are also in favor of talks between the
government and the opposition, which has shown
signs of outrageous brutality recently though
these aren't covered by Turkish or Saudi media.
There is chance these other nations, which
include Pakistan and Iraq, could join hands with
Iran on Wednesday to obstruct the vote on Syria's
expulsion. Iran could also threaten to boycott
future OIC meetings.
"Iran has been put in
a difficult position by the Saudis and their GCC
[Gulf Cooperation Council] partners, who have
presented President Ahmadinejad with a fait
accompli on the issue of Syria's expulsion even
before the summit of leaders got under way," says
the Tehran professor cited above. Tehran will of
course rebound from any "isolation effect" come
the NAM summit, yet for the moment it would be
difficult to hide bruised feelings over the "fast
one" pulled by Riyadh and Ankara.
Arabia-Turkey duet on Syria has been in the making
for quite sometime, which these countries likely
now hoping that the diplomatic coup against Syria
at the OIC summit will pave the way to a "no-fly
zone" which aids the Syrian rebels and cripple the
government's aerial offensive.
given Syria's strong air defenses and the
unwillingness of major North Atlantic Treaty
Organization countries to foot the bill for yet
another gambit in the Middle East, this may still