x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Arab Summit in Doha proves Arab League still relevant on Syria conflict

What distinguished the Arab Summit in Doha from the previous one in that it was Arab political elites discussing the basic popular demands of the Arab peoples.

Yesterday, Arab leaders discussed a range of key regional issues at the 24th Arab Summit, from the bloodshed in Syria to reforming the Arab League. What distinguished the summit from previous ones was that this was Arab political elites discussing the basic popular demands of the Arab peoples.

It remains to be seen whether any meaningful resolutions or programmes will emerge out of the meetings. But the tone of the summit is right, reflecting the urgency of addressing the popular demands of Arab societies for change and progress.

The question of Syria loomed large. The highlight of the summit was the speech delivered by the on-off president of Syria's National Coalition, Moaz Al Khatib, who spoke with the pre-Baath flag of the Syrian opposition visible. He called on the international community to stop the suffering of the Syrian people and also to put aside their bickering over terrorism, and concerns over religious and ethnic minorities and focus on stopping the violence. He called on the UN Security Council to take action and in particular on the United States to play a greater role, beyond supplying humanitarian aid. This role, he argued, could mean US extending the umbrella of Patriot missiles, currently in Turkey, to the north of Syria - making a de-facto no-fly zone.

The Coalition was handed Syria's seat at the Arab League, a blow to the Assad regime in Damascus and a symbolic victory for the opposition. Over the last few weeks, disagreements among regional and international powers over issues involving the Syrian opposition have led to frictions within the opposition. In the summit, it was clear that some agreement on general principles had been reached.

Qatari Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, said that a political solution that does not take the situation in Syria back to square one is acceptable, a clear departure from recent statements of rejecting any negotiated settlement with the regime.

The return of Moaz Al Khatib to speak on behalf of the Syrian people, after announcing his resignation from the coalition on Sunday, and Qatar's statements about accepting a political solution to the Syrian crisis, should signal progress towards common strategies by these countries.

The Arab League is often condemned as an ineffectual talking shop. If real progress on Syria comes out of Doha, it will have proved itself still a relevant force in Arab affairs.