Syria, Sunni-Shiite split arise at Muslim summit

Last Updated: Wed, Feb 06, 2013 19:30 hrs

An Islamic summit that opened in Egypt on Wednesday lay bare the multiple divisions within the Muslim and Arab worlds, with conflicting approaches to the Syrian civil war exposing the Sunni-Shiite sectarian fault lines that have torn the region for years.

Egypt's Islamist leader sharply criticized President Bashar Assad's embattled regime in his address to the two-day summit, though he hedged his comments by only making an indirect call for the Syrian leader to step down.

The Syrian government "must read history and grasp its immortal message: It is the people who remain and those who put their personal interests before those of their people will inevitably go," Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi said.

The conflict in Syria has been deeply divisive in the Middle East, pitting a largely Sunni opposition against a regime dominated by Assad's Alawite minority — a heterodox offshoot of Shiite Islam. Sunni nations such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have thrown their weight behind the rebels, while Shiite heavyweight Iran is Damascus' closest regional ally.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose Shiite-led government has been ambivalent about the Syrian conflict, offered a more cautious approach. In power for nearly seven years, al-Maliki is believed to be worried that his grip on power could weaken if the Sunni majority in neighboring Syria succeeds in overthrowing Assad and a new Sunni leadership takes power in Damascus. Al-Maliki faces a wave of protests against his rule in Iraq's Sunni provinces and has had to fight Sunni extremists linked to al-Qaida for most of his time in office.

"Syria suffers from violence, killings and sabotage," he said and called on the summit to "find an exit and peaceful solution for its conflict." He called on member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the summit's organizer, to unite against terror, suggesting that he, like the regime in Damascus, views the rebels fighting the Syrian regime as terrorists.

At least 60,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict, where the rebel side is heavy on Muslim militants, many of them linked to al-Qaida. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been displaced, and many of them have found refuge in neighboring nations Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.

Later on Wednesday, another Syria-related event reflected the divisive impact of the conflict there.

Saudi Arabia stayed out of a gathering of Morsi and the presidents of Turkey and Iran on the sidelines of the summit to discuss Syria. Saudi Crown Prince Salman, who was heading his country's delegation to the OIC summit, left Egypt just before the mini-summit was held.

Morsi has been trying to form a working group of the four countries to address the Syria crisis. But Saudi Arabia has only attended the "quartet's" first meeting several months ago.

Egyptian officials insist that the Saudis have not pulled out, and an Egyptian presidential spokesman said Salman left because of other, personal engagements. The Saudi foreign minister stayed to attend the OIC summit.

But it is widely suspected that the kingdom has quit the group because they could not see the point of working with Iran, Assad's most ardent backer, to resolve the conflict there.

Morsi has worked for a thaw in ties with Iran, with which Egypt cut ties following the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The Egyptian leader gave a warm welcome Tuesday to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad upon his arrival in Cairo for the summit.

In a sign of Tehran's hopes for better relations, Ahmadinejad offered to provide Egypt with "a big credit line" to help salvage the country's faltering economy. "If the two peoples cooperate and join forces, they can become an important element," Ahmadinejad told the state-run Al-Ahram daily.

Egypt's government had no immediate reaction to Ahmadinejad's offer

Gulf Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have made little effort to hide their distaste for Egypt's new Islamist regime, mostly out of fear they will export Egypt's revolution to their countries. They have also viewed with some discomfort the warming between Cairo and Iran, their longtime foe across the shallow waters of the Gulf.

The UAE, which has a long-running dispute with Iran over ownership of three strategic Gulf islands, has arrested Egyptian expatriates for their alleged links to Morsi's fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood and has given refuge to former Egyptian regime members. Ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak maintained close ties to the UAE for most of his 29 years in power.

Morsi and the Brotherhood have sought to ease Gulf concerns, stressing that the security of the Gulf nations is directly linked to Cairo's own. Egypt has traditionally relied upon the oil-rich nations for financial aid to its faltering economy.

"Egypt's relationship with Iran will never come at the expense of Gulf nations," Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr Kamel said Tuesday.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which are closely allied to the United States, have appeared unconvinced by Cairo's reassurances. However, tiny, super-rich Qatar has taken a different approach to post-Mubarak Egypt, pouring billions of dollars into its fast-emptying coffers to prop up its free-falling economy and currency.

Morsi's spokesman Yasser Ali reiterated Wednesday that any improvement in relations with Iran hinged on Tehran's policy in Syria.

"Iran can be a part of the solution," Ali said Wednesday. He also said Egypt backs the Syrian opposition's offer of negotiations with Assad.

Egyptian officials maintain they are trying to persuade Iran to drop, or at least soften, its support for Assad so it can assume a "constructive role" in the war-torn nation after the fall of the regime there, something that the Egyptians believe to be a question of when rather than if.

Morsi's government, they say, is courting Iran out of concern that without coordination between all regional powers with a stake in Syria, the country would break up along sectarian or religious lines after Assad's departure and the conflict could spill over into neighboring countries like Lebanon and Iraq. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

The region's sectarian tensions have surfaced even before the summit began.

On Tuesday, its most high profile participant, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was publicly warned against interference by Shiite Iran in the affairs of the mostly Sunni Gulf Arab nations. Egypt's most prominent cleric also urged Iran to halt efforts to spread Shiite Islam.

Also on Tuesday, a Syrian citizen protested Iran's backing for Assad by throwing his shoes at Ahmadinejad outside a religious site in Cairo.

Morsi's growing involvement in high profile regional politics is explained by his administration as an effort to restore Egypt's traditionally leading diplomatic role in the area. But foreign policy also appears to offer the Egyptian leader a way to compensate for his perceived failures to tackle pressing problems at home, his critics say.

The summit of the 57-member OIC, held in a luxury hotel in Cairo's upscale Heliopolis district, came a day after the central bank disclosed that the country's strategic foreign currency reserves have made another alarming drop to around $13 billion, nearly two thirds below where they stood when Mubarak stepped down nearly years ago.

Other sectors of the economy are also in a deep slump, like the vital tourism industry.

Morsi also is facing a seemingly endless wave of protests by an opposition that demands an end to what it describes as his efforts to monopolize power and advance the interests of his Muslim Brotherhood group.

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