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For Arab League, Syria Remains a ‘Pretty Sectarian Issue’

March 29, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
President Bashar al-Assad said Thursday that Syria "will spare no effort" to make the peace plan proposed by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan "a success," but said rebels must first cease their "terrorist acts." Margaret Warner and NPR's Kelly McEvers discuss the Syria debate at the Arab League summit in Baghdad.
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MARGARET WARNER: I’m joined now by Kelly McEvers of NPR, who’s covering the summit in Baghdad.

Kelly McEvers, thank you for joining us.

You just came out of the summit press conference. Did they come to any agreement on the next steps they want to see on Syria?

KELLY MCEVERS, NPR: They did come to an agreement.

And that agreement was to support a U.N. plan that’s already in place. So the Arab League didn’t really break any new ground here. The U.N. plan is a six-point plan. It’s being pushed by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. That requires the Syrian regime to pull its troops from the streets, release political prisoners, begin a political dialogue with the opposition.

And so the Syrian regime has said that it’s already agreed to this plan. So, again, the Arab League today coming out in support of this is basically just backing something that’s basically already in place.

MARGARET WARNER: And what was the scuttlebutt in the corridors? Was there any confidence expressed that Assad means it when he says he will follow through on it?

KELLY MCEVERS: There’s a lot of skepticism about that. We’ve been down this road before.

The Arab League already put forward a peace plan asking Assad to pull troops from the streets, asking him to release political prisoners, asking him to begin a dialogue with the opposition. And the Arab League sent monitors in to see that he was going to comply with this. And, in fact, he didn’t comply.

In fact, it was after that mission that the Assad regime stepped up the violence against civilians in Syria. Hundreds more people, possibly thousands more people were killed in bombardments on Syrian cities that are known to be centers of opposition. So, here at the summit, there’s a lot of skepticism. And we put the question to the Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby, what will be the consequences if Assad doesn’t comply?

There’s been talk of further sanctions from the Arab League, possibly someday from the U.N., but, right now, he didn’t have a very clear answer to that question.

MARGARET WARNER: How deep are the rifts within the Arab League over how to deal with Syria? And what’s behind them?

KELLY MCEVERS: Well, it’s a pretty sectarian issue.

You have got predominantly Sunni Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar very much in favor of seeing Assad fall. The opposition in Syria is predominantly Sunni. And so you’ve got other countries that are led by Shiites right now, particularly Iraq, that are not so keen on seeing Assad fall. Assad’s a key ally of Iran. So is Iraq.

So it’s not just even between Sunnis and Shiites right now. It’s actually kind of falling along the lines of this kind of cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran here in the region. So what does that mean for today’s summit? It meant that while Iraq was sort of reasserting itself and saying that this is our time to have our summit, its position on Syria was very middle-of-the-road, while Saudi Arabia and Qatar only set low-level representatives to the summit.

And that sort of sent a message that they weren’t really willing to engage on that level. They want to take a much harder line on Syria. And because they weren’t going to be able to do that here in Baghdad, they basically just didn’t send their leaders at all.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, there are other differences between many Arab League members and Iraq, aren’t there, to explain why they wouldn’t have sent delegations?

KELLY MCEVERS: The fact that Iraq’s government, it is a coalition government, but is dominated by Shiites these days, is not particularly popular with these conservative Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq is not a popular figure in these countries either. They have got a lot of differences over the years. For years, Iraq accused these countries of sending terrorists into Iraq during the worst years of the violence here, during the U.S. occupation.

Again, those times are over. Iraq is trying to mend fences with some of these neighbors. Saudi Arabia did actually just appoint an ambassador to Iraq for the first time. That ambassador isn’t going to be based here in Iraq, but it’s a step, it’s a small step that diplomats in the region say is important for Iraq to pull itself away from those who had influence on it before, particularly the United States, Iran and Turkey.

This is a way to sort of gain more friends in the region.

MARGARET WARNER: This is the first time in more than 20 years that Iraq has hosted an Arab League summit. I gather they went to some rather extraordinary lengths to prepare for it.

KELLY MCEVERS: Absolutely.

The Baghdad government spent a half-a-billion dollars to make this summit happen, put tens of thousands of security men in the streets, basically put the city on lockdown. There were checkpoints everywhere. Most of the city was without phone service for the past two days. You know, they renovated hotels, planted flowers.

And I have to say that the summit did actually go off without incident — almost. Today, as the Arab leaders walked into the palace here, we did hear a couple of sort of telltale booms. Officials later confirmed that it was a couple of mortar rounds that fell, no casualties.

But, you know, in the bigger picture, this was a big deal for Baghdad, not just to say that it’s a safer place these days, it’s a place where people might want to do business, but also it’s trying to reassert itself in the Arab world. Ever since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, Baghdad was a pariah state.

And now Baghdad officials, Iraqi officials are saying, no, that time is over, we’re back in the Arab world, and we’re here to stay.

MARGARET WARNER: Kelly McEvers of NPR, thanks so much.

KELLY MCEVERS: You’re welcome.