- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 6, 2008



Was the 20th summit of the Arab League in Damascus a success? This is a difficult question and every Arab nation seems to have its own answer.

Syria, its host, is happy about the summit. Its foreign minister, Walid Moallem, said at the final press conference that holding the summit at the scheduled time and place was already a success.

Several of Syria’s Arab opponents tried to change the venue to Cairo, but this did not happen. The price was the Lebanese question and a quasi-summit: Of 22 Arab League leaders, only 11 came to Damascus. Others were represented by ambassadors and other lower-ranking officials.

As for Lebanon, the summit was conducted in Damascus only because it was decided not to discuss its problem at all.

Syria has withdrawn its troops from Lebanon but is still accused of exerting influence on the Lebanese, thereby preventing them from electing the president and coming to terms on other issues. Syria also is blamed for special relations with Iran, as Arabs traditionally do not like Iranians too much.

Although Arab unity seemed to have almost disappeared some time ago, let’s see what the Arabs agree on - even in a situation where their differences all but wrecked the summit.

In actuality, there are quite a few points of agreement. They are at one on the issue of nuclear Israel. The final declaration demands that Israel join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and let the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitor its nuclear facilities.

Like North Korea, India and Pakistan, Israel is developing its own nuclear program, and some aspects of it are believed to be of a military character.

Justifying its special circumstances (such as an unfriendly Arab environment), Israel does not confirm or deny the possession of nuclear weapons. It is refusing to sign the NPT or allow IAEA inspectors to visit its facilities.

Sooner or later, the Arabs will have this question resolved, particularly considering that Egypt, Bahrain and likely others soon will have nuclear energy programs.

The summit paid attention to the almost forgotten problem of finding a definition of terrorism. The Arabs urged an international conference under the aegis of the United Nations to discuss it.

The gist of this gesture is understandable. The United Nations is the birthplace of international law, but this law has a gray zone, such as Iraqi resistance to its occupation. Indeed, can and should a citizen fight occupation troops, or was such action regarded as combat heroism only during World War II?

The Damascus declaration emphasizes the need to clarify a difference between terrorism and the right of nations to resist an occupation. A fighter against occupation troops may, however, be qualified as a terrorist if he or she kills civilians or takes them hostage.

This was not mentioned in the declaration. But in general, participants at the summit unanimously supported Russia’s initiative to hold a Middle Eastern conference in Moscow.

A statement to this effect was made by Amr Moussa, the Arab League’s secretary-general. In other words, the Russian proposal for a serious talk on the Syrian and Lebanese aspects of the Middle East peace process may be discussed in Moscow as Russia wanted.

To summarize, those who consider the summit a success have enough grounds for optimism.

The Arabs are not the only ones who lack unity in their regional organizations. Being part of a region does not promote unity; it is rather the other way around. Neighbors always have more grievances against each other than geographically distant countries.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which unites all 10 countries of Southeast Asia, is considered to be the most effective regional organization. Within the 10, there are groups that consistently disagree with one another on major issues.

One of their bones of contention is the military regime in Burma: Should democracy be installed there in a tough or soft way?

They have territorial claims to one another as well. ASEAN is not based on unanimity. The main point is that its discordant members have learned to talk with one another.

People who know little about a similar organization - the Shanghai Cooperation Organization - would be surprised to learn how high emotions run at some of its expert preparatory sessions.

Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are quarreling continuously over water resources. Uzbekistan has a unique point of view on any problem; Russia and China do not see eye to eye on the admission of India and other countries to the SCO. Yet despite all of this, they eventually arrive at common solutions.

The situation in Africa and Latin America is also similar. Despite disagreements, they find a common language at sessions of their regional organizations. Disagreements in the European Union or the Commonwealth of Independent States are even worse. But these organizations are developing, trying to find a common language, and new ones are emerging.

There is little agreement in the world on how it will look and be governed in 20 or 30 years’ time. Russia believes that the role of regional organizations will continue to grow under the U.N. umbrella.

This is logical, and the fact that the Arab League summit took place in Damascus, despite all difficulties, confirms this logic once again.

  • Dmitry Kosyrev is a political commentator with RIA Novosti. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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