Islamic Bloc Moves to Expel Syria, Leaving Iran Isolated

By Patrick Goodenough | August 14, 2012 | 4:50 AM EDT

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad awards Iran's highest medal to his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad, in Tehran on Oct. 2, 2010. A decision by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to expel Syria leaves Iran isolated in the Muslim bloc. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

( – A decision by the world’s Islamic nations to expel the Assad regime from its ranks comes as a particular blow to Syria’s closest ally, Iran, and underscores the widening Sunni-Shi’ite rift.

Iran strongly opposed the call to eject Syria over its violent crackdown, but found little support for its stance Monday as foreign ministers from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) laid the groundwork for an OIC leaders’ summit, being held in Mecca, Saudi Arabia on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The ministers’ recommendation to expel Syria, expected to be formally announced on Wednesday, leaves Iran isolated in the community of Islamic nations, just days before it hoped to enhance its global standing by hosting a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), a bloc of developing countries.

Iran had tried to counter the Syria focus by insisting that the OIC summit also deal with the situation in Bahrain, where Iran is backing its Shi’ite brethren in their demand for reforms from the Sunni monarchy that has ruled the small island nation for more than two centuries.

Iranian deputy foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said Iran wanted leaders of the OIC to address the Syrian and Bahraini crises “simultaneously,” and also to give significant attention to “Palestine.”

The Palestinian issue always features prominently at OIC gatherings and this time will be no exception, but Saudi Arabia and the neighboring Gulf states will fend off Tehran’s attempts to push Bahrain up the agenda.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal said in an address to his OIC counterparts that the summit was being convened “to ward off temptation and address the arising serious risks, including extremism, intolerance, incitement, violence and disintegration of the Islamic nation’s consensus.” (A deputy read out the speech on behalf of Saud, who is convalescing after surgery.)

Saudi King Abdullah called the gathering – only the fourth “extraordinary” summit in the OIC’s 43 year-old history – “to examine the situation in many countries of the Islamic world, intensify efforts to confront this situation, address the sources of discord and division therein, reunify the Islamic ummah [community] and promote Islamic solidarity.”

If anything, the summit seems more likely to enhance Sunni solidarity and entrench the sectarian divide: The Syrian opposition is backed by Sunni powerhouses led by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, while President Bashar Assad’s dwindling circle of allies comprise Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon, with some sympathizers in Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government. Some key Islamic states say they remain neutral; Pakistan, for example, abstained when the U.N. Security Council voted last month on a Syria resolution that was ultimately vetoed by Russia and China.

Syria was suspended from the 22-member Arab League last November, but expulsion from the Islamic bloc is even more significant, as its 57 members include such leading non-Arab countries as Indonesia, Pakistan and Turkey.

Before leaving for Mecca, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the OIC summit would provide “an opportunity for our nation’s standpoint to be explained clearly and for efforts to be made toward the convergence and protection of the interests and integrity of Muslim nations.”

“Different groups are at work and the enemies are actively pursuing their aims and a great deal of energy is being spent by Islamic governments and groups on arguing and confronting each other,” he said. “I hope that the summit will focus on increasing unity and lowering antagonism.”

Syria’s ambassador to Iran, Hamed Hassan, said in Tehran Monday that his country was at war “with an axis of evil shaped in Washington and Tel Aviv and joined by a number of Arab and western countries.”

“The plot is aimed at hitting a blow at the Syrian nation and government because Syria has always been part of the axis of resistance and opposed the role of the U.S. and the Zionist regime which seek hegemony over the region,” the semi-official Fars news agency quoted him as saying.

‘Bonds of solidarity’

OIC secretary-general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said in a statement that the Mecca summit was aimed at “reinforcing the bonds of solidarity between Islamic countries and nations, confirming the unity of ranks and consolidating harmony which is the strong chord that is unbreakable amongst Muslims.”

President Obama has sent his special envoy to the OIC, Rashad Hussain, to attend the meeting as an observer.

The State Department said in a statement Monday the decision “demonstrates the United States’ commitment to working with our partners in the international community to support the aspirations of the Syrian people and bring additional pressure to bear on the Assad regime. Special Envoy Hussain will also hold bilateral meetings to discuss a number of issues including Syria and the democratic transitions in the Middle East and North Africa.”

Alongside Syria, other issues likely to be discussed in Mecca this week include the political crisis in Mali (an OIC member), the repression of minority Rohingya Muslims in Burma, and “Islamophobia.”

The OIC has only held three “extraordinary” summits in the past. The first, in Islamabad in 1997, aimed at “preparing the Islamic world for the 21st century.” The second took place in Doha in March 2003, on the eve of the Iraq war, with the meeting opposing the war and urging Islamic countries not to cooperate with the U.S.

The third “extraordinary” summit, held in Mecca in 2005, dealt with the Mohammed cartoon furor and adopted a “ten-year program of action” which included calls for OIC member states to coordinate their positions and to support each other’s candidatures for positions at the U.N. and other international institutions.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow