RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AFP) — Saudi Arabia’s push for a tough stand against its arch-rival Iran is expected to dominate an Arab League summit on Sunday as regional tensions grow over the wars in Syria and Yemen.
The fate of Jerusalem will also be on the summit’s agenda, as the United States prepares to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to the city after declaring it the capital of Israel.
Saudi Arabia, which is hosting the yearly summit in the Eastern Province city of Dhahran, is likely to seek Arab support to pile the pressure on Iran, analysts say.
“The Saudis are going to push for a much harsher stance on Iran — not necessarily on the nuclear dossier per se, but on Iranian influence in the Arab countries, particularly Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen,” said Karim Bitar of the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Affairs.
Iran’s influence is wielded through a land route of armed parties in the Middle East — the so-called “Shiite crescent” that cuts across the mainly Sunni Arab world.
Iran has long been a supporter of Syrian President Bashar Assad and backs Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah movement, whose fighters are deployed in Syria alongside regime forces.
Iran also openly supports the Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen in their war against the Saudi-backed government but denies accusations of smuggling arms to the insurgents.
And in Shiite-dominated Iraq, the Islamic republic backs armed groups and supports the government.
“The secularization of Iran is being pushed predominantly by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, along with other Arab countries including Egypt,” said Andreas Krieg, assistant professor of defense studies at King’s College London.
“Saudi Arabia has also reached out to Iraq to try and build ties and tackle militias there,” Krieg told AFP.
“It’s definitely safe to say that Iran is the centrepiece of this summit.”
Syria chemical attack
The summit will be attended by delegations from 21 of the Arab League’s 22-member states. Syria has been suspended from the organisation for seven years over Assad’s crackdown on protesters.
The gathering comes as the US administration of President Donald Trump, a key Saudi ally, faces crucial decisions on how to react to the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
Trump has put off a final decision on US-led strikes against Syria after an alleged chemical attack against the rebel-held town of Douma that killed dozens.
The summit is expected to release a statement on the suspected toxic gas attack, but it remains to be seen whether the Arab League will take any action as well.
Syria serves today as a major pivot between Saudi Arabia and its allies on the one hand, and Iran and Hezbollah on the other.
Each party in the conflict backs opposing sides but all agree that the country’s future cannot be decided solely by the Assad regime, whose troops have regained territory with Russia’s support.
After years of demanding that Assad step down, Saudi Arabia this month conceded, in the words of its powerful crown prince, that the embattled president was staying.
“Certain regional powers previously determined to bring down the Syrian regime — particularly Saudi Arabia and Turkey — have now accepted the status quo, that Assad is staying,” Bitar said.
“Bashar’s Iranian patrons are also very well aware that their protege cannot run the show on his own and they are starting to accept the premise that they will have to negotiate spheres of influence in Syria territories.”
Fate of Jerusalem
The summit also comes as 34 Palestinians have been killed and hundreds wounded by Israeli forces in recent weeks, according to the Hamas-run interior ministry in Gaza.
The protests are to continue until mid-May, around the time Washington is to move its embassy to Jerusalem, which both Palestinians and Israelis claim as their capital.
On Friday, Gazans held the third of what Gaza’s ruling Hamas terror group said would be several weeks of “March of Return” demonstrations, which Hamas leaders say ultimately aim to see the removal of the border and the liberation of Palestine.
Israel says its forces have opened fire to stop attempts to harm soldiers, damage the fence, infiltrate Israel, and attempt to carry out attacks. Israel has accused Hamas of trying to carry out border attacks under the cover of large protests and says it will prevent a breach of the fence at all costs. Palestinians say protesters are being shot while posing no threat to soldiers.
Israel’s defense minister has warned that protesters approaching the border fence endanger their lives, drawing condemnation from rights groups that said such seemingly broad open-fire rules are unlawful.
The idea of mass protests was initially floated by social media activists, but was later co-opted by Hamas, which avowedly seeks Israel’s destruction, with the backing of smaller terror groups. Hamas has acknowledged that several of those killed were its members, and Israel has identified other fatalities as members of terrorist groups.
Senior Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi has said she hopes the summit will lead to a resolution, and concrete action, supporting the Palestinian position on Jerusalem.
Gaza leaders have planned a series of so-called Marches of Return culminating in a planned million-strong march in mid-May, to coincide with Israel’s 70th Independence Day, the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, and Nakba Day — when the Palestinians mark what they call the “catastrophe” that befell them with Israel’s creation. The “Return” refers to Palestinians’ demand that tens of thousands of refugees and their millions of descendants be allowed to live in today’s Israel, an influx that would spell the end of Israel as the world’s sole Jewish-majority state.
Hamas violently took control of Gaza from Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew its military and civilian presence from the Strip. Israel and Egypt maintain a security blockade of Gaza. Israel says this is vital to prevent Hamas — which has fought three rounds of conflict against Israel since seizing Gaza, firing thousands of rockets into Israel and digging dozens of attack tunnels under the border — from importing weaponry.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.