Despite their proven futility, Arab League summits have always managed to create a modicum of expectation over the last couple of decades, with several big events shaking the Arab world to its core. But apart from the few exceptions when actionable resolutions were adopted, like the expulsion of Egypt at the 1979 Baghdad summit (following its peace agreement with Israel) or the emergency Cairo summit of 1990 in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait (where a leaked recording exposed Arab leaders disgracefully shouting insults across the table), Arab League summits have mostly been opportunities to prove the cliche that "Arabs agree to disagree".
With such low expectations and no likely achievements, the region now mostly plays a different summit game: how will turnout be? Which of the big names will skip and who will strive to steal the headlines by arriving late? The scrutiny continues during the summit: who will be merely civil to whom, who will show effusive appreciation of whom and whose brotherly kisses and hugs will provide the best photo-op?
The upcoming Damascus summit suffers from these usual afflictions, but there are additional issues raising the stakes. For one, past thorny summits were held on relatively neutral ground, either in countries not directly implicated in the crisis du jour or in Arab League headquarters. In contrast, the Damascus summit will convene in the country most at odds with its co-members and under the auspices of a rather controversial regime whose relations with other states have deteriorated over one of the trickiest problems facing the region in recent years: Lebanon’s presidential crisis is blamed on Damascus alone.
One other novelty is the extent of pre-conditions other regimes have imposed, or tried to impose, on their host–conditions that reveal the lack of faith summit participants themselves have in the potential value of such gatherings. Instead of proposing to use the summit to resolve the Lebanese problem, countries with rival positions have hinted that their participation depends precisely on the election of a president after 16 attempts; a seventeenth failure, they warn, would doom the summit to low-level (if any) representation.
Syria is anxious to avoid a humiliating no-show from the big names. Repeatedly trying, and repeatedly failing, to secure Saudi approval for a visit by Foreign Minister Walid Muallem to deliver the official summit invitation, Syria finally resigned itself to send it at a much lower level, illustrating the depth of the gulf between Riyadh and Damascus. It will not have helped, of course, that Lebanon was the last of 22 countries to be invited to the summit, in a manner defying protocol and typical of Syrian "diplomacy": handed to a resigned minister of the Lebanese cabinet by an official of the Syrian foreign ministry, the invitation wasn’t even signed by the host, but by the Syrian prime minister.
Such moves do nothing to endear the Syrian regime to its critics, and Muallem’s claim that this summit will have the highest level of attendance of any summit remains to be seen. It is not clear whether he counts one of the confirmed attendees, the Iranian foreign minister, in his tally, but unless other friendly neighbors (such as Turkey) also make an appearance, the Iranian representative may find himself the sole non-Arab at the table among irate participants finding yet another point of contention with the host.
But Damascus is also subject to unprecedented third party interference, a phenomenon not experienced by other summit organizers. With the American president arrogantly preaching to Arabs about attendance, and with even the usually diplomatic head of EU diplomacy, Javier Solana, opining that key Arab leaders should not go if a Lebanese counterpart is not among them, Syria’s own meddling begins to appear pertinent.
A summit should be the perfect setting for reaching regional solutions, but pan-Arab politics have rarely followed such logic and we are left measuring success by attendance rather than achievement. Thus, even the 2002 Beirut summit’s major accomplishment (the adoption of the Arab peace initiative) was overshadowed by the absence of half the heads of state and the deliberate snub of besieged Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s televised address to his fellow leaders, when the host, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, interrupted Arafat’s broadcast as it began from Ramallah and declared it was time for lunch.
The current Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, will be unenthusiastic about making a personal appearance in the capital where his biggest enemy (Hamas) holds political court, but is unable to skip the summit given the tragic situation in Gaza. Likewise, the Lebanese will be damned if they come (which some would consider a show of weakness before Syria) and damned if they don’t (which could be interpreted as unwillingness to trust pan-Arab diplomacy). Current heavyweights Egypt and Saudi Arabia will also be torn between attending to impose their presence and sitting out to register their opposition to Syrian actions and thus cause summit failure.
But Syrian-Saudi relations, currently at an all-time low, have overcome greater challenges. While many believe that King Abdullah has not forgiven, or forgotten, Syrian slights he felt were directed at his person after the Israeli assault on Lebanon in 2006, this didn’t stop him from embracing and meeting with the Syrian president at the last summit in Riyadh. This shows that summits do little to change political situations, and the Damascus summit will be just as inconsequential as its precursors.
Still, the Syrian regime is hoping that the regional situation, recently stirred even more by Israel, the United States and various other incendiary meddlers, will Arab leaders them toward participation, and that their presence in the self-proclaimed "beating heart of Arabism" will allow for a whirlwind persuasive demonstration of its leadership in the sacrosanct Arab struggle–a task made more difficult, if not moot, by the presence of Iran.
To paraphrase Fontenelle, a great obstacle to success is the expectation of too much success. Despite Syrian hype around the summit, success measured by attendance merely increases the possibility of failure in such unfavorable circumstances.