DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) – Arab League leaders on Sunday called for an international probe into the “criminal” use of chemical weapons in Syria and condemned what they see as Iran’s interference in the affairs of other countries.
Regional powers Saudi Arabia and Iran have for decades been locked in a struggle for supremacy that is now being played out in proxy wars in several countries, including Yemen and Syria.
“We stress our absolute condemnation of the use of chemical weapons against the sisterly Syrian people and we demand an independent international investigation to guarantee the application of international law to everyone proven to use chemical weapons,” said a document distributed to journalists.
It emphasized the need for a political solution to the multi-sided Syrian war, which has killed at least half a million people in the past seven years.
A previous statement read out at the close of the summit in the eastern Saudi city of Dhahran did not mention Syria.
Saudi Arabia and its allies have expressed support for Saturday’s missile strikes by the United States, Britain and France against three alleged chemical weapons facilities in Syria, while other Arab states such as Iraq and Lebanon have condemned the strikes.
The Syrian government denies using or possessing chemical weapons and said the strikes were an act of aggression.
Military help over the past three years from Russia and Iran, which also backs Lebanon’s Hezbollah group and Shi’ite Muslim militias in Iraq, has allowed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to crush the rebel threat to topple him.
The communique called for additional international sanctions on Iran and urged Tehran to withdraw “its militias” from Syria and Yemen.
“We renew our strong condemnation of terrorist acts carried out by Iran in the Arab region, and we reject its blatant interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries,” King Salman said in an opening speech. Iran denies the accusations.
Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed cooperating with the Arab League on regional security, specifically in Iraq and Syria following the defeat of Islamic State militants there, according to Russian news agencies.
Saudi Arabia, which takes over the rotating chair of the Arab summit from Jordan, announced that the current gathering would be named the “Quds (Jerusalem) Summit”, a reference to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision last year to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, which Arab states condemned.
Delegates pledged in the closing statement to support the Palestinians, who want East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future Palestinian state. King Salman said Saudi Arabia was donating $200 million to support them, including $50 million for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
Qatar did not send a senior official to Dhahran in a sign that its 10-month-old dispute with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt is still a long way from being resolved.
The four countries severed diplomatic and transport ties with Doha in June 2017, accusing it of supporting terrorism. Doha denies the charges and says the boycott is an attempt to impinge on its sovereignty.
The Qatari delegation was headed by Doha’s permanent representative to the Arab League, Saif bin Muqaddam al-Buainain, Qatar’s state news agency said, without elaborating.
Most of the 22 other countries were represented by heads of state or government. Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani headed Qatar’s delegation at last year’s summit in Jordan.
Sheikh Tamim returned to Doha on Saturday from a U.S. trip where he met Trump. Trump publicly sided with the Saudis and Emiratis early in the crisis but is now pushing for a resolution to restore Gulf Arab unity and maintain a united front against Iran.
Ahead of the summit, the four boycotting nations said their demands – including closing the Al Jazeera television station and reducing ties with Iran – were “a necessary basis” for a resolution to the crisis with Qatar.
Writing by Maha El Dahan and Stephen Kalin; Editing by Ghaida Ghantous and Kevin Liffey