MECCA, Saudi Arabia (AFP) – The world’s largest pan-Islamic bloc was poised Wednesday to suspend conflict-wracked Syria, a move strongly opposed by Iran, a staunch ally of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
An emergency summit of the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) opened late Tuesday with the proposal put forward by a preparatory meeting of foreign ministers, a symbolic attempt to pile pressure on Damascus over its deadly crackdown on a 17-month uprising.
A draft final statement obtained by AFP said the summit, in Mecca, the holiest Islamic city, “approves the suspension of Syria’s membership.” It is expected to be endorsed when the leaders reconvene late Wednesday evening.
The move by the OIC, which represents 1.5 million Muslims worldwide, is aimed at further isolating Assad’s embattled regime but its effect is seen as being largely symbolic.
Syria was suspended from the Arab League last year over its clampdown on the uprising that Assad characterised as a plot by Western and rival powers to overthrow his regime.
Saudi King Abdullah is presiding over the meeting, which is being attended by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad whose country has openly criticised the push to suspend Syria.
The draft statement says Syria should be suspended over “the obstinacy of the Syrian authorities in following the military option” to solve the crisis and the failure of a UN-Arab League peace plan brokered by Kofi Annan.
It demands that Assad’s regime “immediately end all acts of violence” while defending Syria’s “unity, sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.”
Tensions have been simmering for months between Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Shiite-dominated Iran as Syria has emerged as another arena for the longtime rivalry between the two regional heavyweights.
The Saudi monarch, whose country hosts the headquarters of the OIC in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, proposed Tuesday setting up a centre for dialogue between Muslim confessions in Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia has openly called for arming Syrian rebels.
Tehran meanwhile accuses Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey of arming and financing the mainly Sunni rebels against Assad, who leads a regime dominated by members of his Alawite sect, an off-shoot of Shiite Islam.
Iran is the Syrian regime’s biggest regional ally and has pledged its full support for Assad, though it denies US and rebel accusations that it is providing his regime with arms and fighters.
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi on Monday criticised the move to suspend Syria’s membership of the OIC, saying it would not resolve the conflict and was not in line with the group’s charter.
“We have to look for other ways, means and mechanisms for resolving conflicts and crises,” he said, calling for a “Syrian-Syrian solution” reached through negotiations between the government and the rebels.
But foreign ministers meeting ahead of the summit agreed to suspend Syria “based on consensus with an absolute majority” and forwarded the decision to heads of state for final approval, OIC chief Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said.
Sources close to the meeting said that only Iran and Algeria were against the recommendation. Syria had no representative at the meeting.
Mohammed Ahmed Taieb, a top Saudi foreign ministry official, told AFP that some delegates believed the body should go further by demanding that Assad step down and “preparing for a post-Assad transition period.”
Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem hailed the move to suspend as “a strong message to the Syrian regime on the importance of listening to the will of the people and their demands for freedom, justice and dignity.”
The United States said that special envoy to the OIC Rashad Hussain would take part in the summit as an observer and meet with delegates on the sidelines.
The State Department said his attendance demonstrates Washington’s commitment to “bring additional pressure to bear on the Assad regime.”
The 17-month conflict in Syria has killed more than 21,000 people, according to rights groups.
In addition to the Syrian crisis, the OIC was also to discuss the Arab-Israeli conflict, the violence against the Muslim Rohingya minority in Myanmar and the unrest in Mali.