The Arab League summit in Baghdad is over and it is time to take stock.
Given the essentially international character of the summit in Baghdad, it is natural to start with the regional implications. And, in many ways, the degree of representation at the level of heads of state is a useful indicator of how things went. Altogether, 10 countries were represented by their rulers: Tunisia, Libya, Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia, Comoros, Palestine, Lebanon and Kuwait in addition to Iraq.
In one way, those who came to Baghdad can be crudely summarized as the “Maghreb Spring” countries (Tunisia, Libya), the very poor in need of any help they can get (Comoros, Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti, Palestine), and “others” not so easily classified (Kuwait and Lebanon). The absence of most of the GCC leaders can be attributed to continued aversion to the Maliki government in Iraq, whereas the failure of the rulers of Egypt and Yemen to show up may reflect the messiness of their own domestic situations as much as any clear policy on Iraq.
But there is more to this than the apparent preference of poor republics for building ties with the new Iraq. True, the gap between Iraq and the Gulf countries remains wide, but if the Iraqi government can build ties with non-GCC countries, it could form an alternative regional bloc within the Arab League. The one obvious disappointing absence for Iraq in this respect must have been that of Algeria. Nonetheless, the net outcome of the meeting was a dilution of the GCC interventionist policy on Syria. Thanks to their own lack of initiative and boycott, Saudi Arabia and Qatar had to yield to Arab states that prefer softer language on regime change in Syria. The massive wealth of the GCC states was in itself not sufficient to buy a particular Arab policy on Syria.
Also, it is significant that a growing number of Arab states are prepared to interact with Iraq as a perfectly normal Arab state. This is so despite continued attempts by Gulf states to dismiss the Iraqi government as Iranian marionettes. The Arab heads of state who did come to Baghdad probably realized that the town wasn’t full of Safavids after all and that attempts to reduce regional politics to a clear-cut Sunni–Shiite sectarian struggle are futile. (An AP piece claimed “Sunni rulers” shunned the summit whereas in fact 8 “Sunni rulers” were present!) Growing number of Arab rulers realize it is normal for Iraq to have leaders who may or may not be Shiites.
The second implication of the Baghdad meeting relates to the level of internal Iraqi politics. Only weeks ago, both the Kurds and Iraqiyya talked tough about bringing Iraqi domestic problems onto the summit agenda. Schemes for unseating Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki seemed to garner more interest than ever. In the end, though, the domestic situation in Iraq was kept off the summit agenda, and neither Ayad Allawi of Iraqiyya nor the Kurdish president, Masud Barzani, attended the meeting.
What Allawi and Barzani need to realize is that their position is increasingly analogous to that of the GCC states within the Arab League. The GCC countries who boycotted Baghdad saw their forward policy on Syria reversed. If they persist in boycotting Maliki, Allawi and Barzani may well experience something similar with their own ambitions domestically in Iraq. Importantly, other Iraqiyya leaders like Usama al-Nujayfi (parliament speaker) and Rafi al-Eisawi (finance minister) showed up at the summit. Their presence highlighted how a letter of protest from Qatar which attempted to speak on the behalf of the “Sunnis in Iraq” was just too unsophisticated to fit the complex Iraqi situation. Even the Bahraini foreign minister opted to have a meeting with Maliki.
Perhaps the best indication of the state of affairs in Iraq was the simultaneity of the summit and a mortar attack near the Iranian embassy. The two happened at the same time, but the attack did not derail or even interrupt the meeting of the Arab leaders. These attacks will continue to happen, but they are unlikely to create the collapse of politics in Iraq sought by their perpetrators. Similarly, Iraqi opponents of the Maliki government – who have many valid reasons for being critical – should realize that a policy of dialogue with him stands a better chance of achieving something in the real world. The alternative may well be growing irrelevance, both in the Iraqi political process as well as in the Arab world at large.