An Islamic summit that opened in Egypt on Wednesday laid bare the multiple divisions within the Muslim and Arab worlds, with conflicting approaches to the Syrian civil war exposing the Sunni-Shia sectarian fault lines that have torn the region for years.
Egypt's Islamist leader, President Mohammed Morsi, 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: Itlaid is the people who remain and those who put their personal interests before those of their people will inevitably go," 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 Shia Islam. Sunni nations such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have thrown their weight behind the rebels, while Shia heavyweight Iran is Damascus's closest regional ally.
More cautious approach
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose Shia-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 neighbouring 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-Qaeda for most of his time in office.
'Iran can be a part of the solution.' — Morsi spokesman Yasser Ali
"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 with Muslim militants, many of them linked to al-Qaeda. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been displaced, and many of them have found refuge in neighbouring nations Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.
Later on Wednesday, another Syria-related event reflected the divisive impact of the conflict there.
Saudi Arabia skips meeting
Saudi Arabia stayed out of a gathering of Morsi and the presidents of Turkey and Iran who discussed 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 co-operate 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. 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 co-ordination 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 neighbouring countries like Lebanon and Iraq. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.