BEIRUT: There is no unified Arab stance yet on Syria, the Arab League chief said Friday after Lebanon hosted a meeting of foreign officials as part of the Arab Economic and Social Development summit events.
“There is still Arab disagreement on this issue,” Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit said following a closed door meeting between ministers.
Damascus has had its membership in the Arab League frozen since 2011, after the outbreak of the civil war, and was thus not invited to this year’s summit.
Senior political sources also told The Daily Star about a major sticking point about Syrian refugees between member states during talks Friday. The language used in the summit’s agenda to discuss the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland was controversial. Arab states reportedly wanted to include the word “voluntary” that stipulates Syrian refugees who don’t want to return to their homeland can stay in host countries, including Lebanon.
One source said that inside the closed door meeting, Gulf states, Jordan and Egypt jumped up when Lebanon’s caretaker Foreign Minister Bassil refused to allow the controversial word to be included in an article of the refugees return.
When Bassil proceeded to say they can debate the wording, the opposing Arab states said it was not up for discussion. “It appears as if there was a clear decision made ahead of the summit for the countries to come to Beirut and even though it’s a social and economic conference, put through a word allowing Syrian refugees to remain in Lebanon,” the source said.
Bassil planned on calling for an emergency meeting to reinstate Syria before the weekend, but he stopped short after failing to garner internal unity on the matter.
Yet the foreign minister made his position clear Friday when he called on the Arab League to restore Syria’s membership to avoid what he described as a “historic mistake,” during the opening of the first session. Bassil said the issue was the “biggest gap” in the conference. “Syria needs to return to us.”He added that Syria’s reinstatement must be done “without permission from anyone else [outside of the Arab League].”
Asked at the subsequent news conference if Washington and other countries were behind the pressure to refrain, Bassil refused to name anyone.
The caretaker foreign minister also weighed in on the issue of Arab heads of state withdrawing from the summit at the last minute. “I understand why a head of state would have done what they did,” he said in an indirect reference to recent behavior by Speaker Nabih Berri’s Amal Movement.
Last week, Amal supporters tore down and burned the Libyan flag to protest the North African country’s invitation to the summit.
Earlier in the day, Assistant Secretary-General of the Arab League Hossam Zaki held a news conference and addressed the last-minute withdrawal of most heads of state from the summit, suggesting that the “atmosphere” in Lebanon surrounding the event may have influenced their decisions.
After Libya responded by boycotting the summit, several countries that initially intended to send their heads of state announced they would send lower-level representatives instead.
As of now, Mauritania and Somalia are the only countries that will be represented by their respective head of state.
Working toward the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals will also be high on summit’s agenda, which will aim to create a united front to “give Arab nations a single voice” at the 2019 International Conference on Sustainable Development, Zaki said.
Meanwhile, Bassil noted that the closed door meeting produced agreement on a 29-item agenda that includes solving social and economic issues, poverty, increased migration away from the region and malnourishment. The agenda also tackles the Syrian refugee crisis, he said, though further discussion was needed on that provision.
Caretaker Economy Minister Raed Khoury outlined President Michel Aoun’s plan to “establish a financing structure for the reconstruction of the destroyed Arab countries,” after a meeting with economic and foreign ministers. “We agreed on most items put forward today, including the digital economy initiated by Lebanon and intended to stimulate trade between Arab countries,” Khoury said, referencing a new law for digital signatures which has been endorsed by Parliament, according to Khoury’s statement.
Aoun is expected to present the plan Sunday, Khoury said.
During his opening of the summit session earlier in the day, Bassil called for a moment of silence for assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and Lebanese people who “died for the dignity of the country.”
Bassil said Arab states continue to trade blame for suffering across the region rather than assembling plans to alleviate it.
“Our economic and social problems are many, and we are responsible for the growing of this because instead of coming together to resolve them, we become more divided and the problems become bigger,” he said. “And instead of coming together to ease the effects, we waged wars against each other and increased misery.”
Among the biggest challenges facing Arab nations, Bassil said, are war, malnutrition and poverty, in addition to extremism, child abuse and the denial of women’s basic rights.
“Let’s build a united Arab economic vision, based on the political principle of not attacking each other,” Bassil concluded.
During the opening session, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki called on Arab nations to join forces to boycott Israel.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi also used his speech to condemn the Jewish state, saying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the main reason for regional discord.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohamed Alhakim lauded the states in the region hosting refugees, saying all Arab nations had a duty to share this burden.
Representatives from the other participating nations then spoke, including the Yemeni industry and trade minister; the Somali finance minister; and the foreign ministers of Mauritania and Djibouti.
Aoun received Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry shortly after the Egyptian official landed in Beirut for the summit.
During the meeting at Baabda Palace, Shoukry said the “frequent visits between the two countries confirm the mutual keenness to improve the bilateral relationship and contribute to Lebanon’s stability,” according to the Lebanese presidency’s official Twitter account.
“We will make every effort to ensure the summit’s success,” Shoukry added. - Additional reporting by Timour Azhari