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Arab Summit Marks Milestones for Syria, Iraq, Arab League

Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari (R) speaks during a joint Arab Summit conference with the Arab League's Deputy Secretary General for Political Affairs, Ahmad bin Hilly, in Baghdad, Iraq, March 28, 2012.

Arab League leaders are meeting in Baghdad this week, with efforts to end the violence in Syria high on their agenda. The summit marks important milestones in the Syria crisis, Iraq’s emergence from seven years of war, and a remarkable evolution in the Arab League itself.

As Arab leaders were gathering, amateur video continued to come out of Syria showing fresh government shelling of opposition strongholds. Stopping the violence in Syria is a key agenda item for the summit.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has agreed to the U.N.-Arab League envoy's peace plan, which calls for an immediate ceasefire.

With the government crackdown on the Syrian opposition continuing, however, Western officials and experts suspect a delaying tactic rather than a sincere change of policy. And they don’t expect the Arab League meeting to make much difference. Syria will not attend the summit since it has been expelled from the League, and says it will reject any new initiatives the meeting produces.

Possible fallout of leadership change

Speaking via Skype, Anthony Skinner, director of Middle East analysis at the Maplecroft risk assessment firm, said the change of League chairmanship from Qatar to Iraq could possibly be a setback for efforts to force Assad to back down.

“Qatar was previously chairing the Arab League. It was in a position of authority. But now, of course, this leadership role has transferred to Iraq. And from the perspective of Bashar al-Assad this is arguably a good thing. Al-Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq, has taken a much softer approach,” said Skinner.

Still, the Arab League's effort to play a major role in the Syria conflict reflects its new position in the wake of the Arab revolutions, and the arrival of its new secretary general Nabil al-Araby.

New energy pervades Arab League

At London’s Center for Arab and Iranian Studies, director Alireza Nourizadeh said the League has been revitalized by the past year’s events.

“Some of these Arab governments, by themselves, they don’t enjoy such respect and support in the international community. But the Arab League is not just talking for the governments. They are representing 'the people,' as they call it now. And it will be dealt with more seriously," said Nourizadeh.

Iraqi leaders also are hoping the world will see their country differently after this summit, especially Sunni leaders in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere - some of whom are boycotting the summit because of suspicions about largely Shiite Iraq’s ties to Iran.

“They look at this summit as a way of coming back to the Arab World. So it is an important factor in the future of Iraq,” said Nourizadeh.

The Arab League summit has many dimensions - including Iraq’s re-emergence as a regional player, the League's new activism and its efforts to end the violence in Syria. But analysts say significant movement on any of those fronts will be difficult to achieve.

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