Muslim heads of state were expected to suspend Syria from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) at a summit in the Saudi city of Makkah on Wednesday despite objections from Iran, Bashar al Assad’s closest ally.
The decision by the 57-member body is symbolic and will have little practical effect on Syria, but it will underline Assad’s isolation in the Islamic world.
Syria has become another arena in a wider sectarian-tinged tussle pitting Iran against Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, who are backed by the West despite their own evident distaste for democracy. Turkey has also turned against Assad to become a focus of efforts to topple its former friend.
Nevertheless, to preserve a facade of Muslim unity, Saudi King Abdullah welcomed leaders to the Makkah summit with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad beside him. The two men were shown on Saudi state TV talking and laughing together.
“It was a message to the Iranian nation and, I assume, to the Saudi people, that we are Muslim and we have to work together and forget about our differences,” said Abdullah al Shammari, a Saudi political analyst.
When it comes to Syria, those gaps appear insurmountable, with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey supporting the rebels, and Iran determined to prop up a proven ally who has provided vital logistical support for its ally Hezbollah in Lebanon. `
Turkey’s ties with Iran, an important trade partner and energy supplier, have also worsened over Syria and over US-led efforts to punish Tehran for its disputed nuclear programme.
Syria’s mainly Sunni Muslim rebels are backed by Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar as well as Turkey, while Iran supports Assad, a member of the Alawite minority sect.
Those divisions have stymied diplomatic efforts to halt the bloodshed in Syria, where opposition sources say 18,000 people have been killed, and have raised the prospect of Syria becoming a proxy battlefield for outside powers.
Assad’s former prime minister, Riyad Habib who defected this month, made his first public appearance on Tuesday since he fled, telling a news conference in Jordan that Assad controls less than a third of Syria and his power is crumbling.
“The regime is collapsing, spiritually and financially, as it escalates militarily,” he said. “It no longer controls more than 30 percent of Syrian territory.”
Published in The Express Tribune, August 16th, 2012.