SUMMITS are not just about diplomacy and getting results; sometimes it matters just as much that they actually take place without anyone getting killed.

So it proved last week in Baghdad, where the Arab League held its latest get-together amid the kind of security that is usually only seen in Rambo movies.

Relief was the principal emotion etched on the face of the host nation's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, as he wrapped up the meeting with the grateful thought that it represented "a new turning point in the relations among Arab countries". Although some of the key players failed to show up and the agenda was written off as being too woolly, the expected violence failed to materialise – apart from an isolated mortar attack – largely because 100,000 members of the Iraqi security services silenced Iraq's mobile-phone network and locked down large areas of the city.

From that point of view the summit could not be faulted – and it might just represent the moment when Iraq made the transition from failed state to born-again member of the Arab League.

So for that initiative it was a welcome move. However, from every other perspective it was a bit of a damp squib. While no-one expected the summit to produce a universal panacea for the region's ills, there has to be disappointment that it revealed so many fracture lines at a time when there is enormous pressure on the Arab world to be responsible for its own affairs.

On that score, the divisions between the Sunni and Shia communities could not have been more apparent. In a clear diplomatic affront to the hosts, 12 of the Arab League's 22 members only sent ambassadorial teams to the summit, while the rest sent heads of state. (Bucking that trend was Kuwait, whose emir made a first visit to Baghdad since the Iraqi invasion of his country in 1990). Among those who stayed away were big hitters such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Morocco and Jordan, all of which are ruled by Sunni monarchs who deplore the close links between Baghdad's Shia government and Iran. Normally this would not have mattered much, but as Syria was the main item on the agenda it mattered a great deal.

Hopes had been high that the summit would be able to come to an agreement on persuading Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stop the violence which has swept through his country for the past year, but that was quickly revealed as an unrealistic prospect. The summit ended with a vague call to Assad to rein in his forces, but no-one seemed to know how that might be done. And therein lies the main reason why the summit could never be called a thundering success.

No doubt the Arab League is genuine in its desire to prevent Syrian tanks crushing Syrian demonstrators and it is true that all are united in a vague resolve to support calls for a ceasefire – but beyond the utterances of goodwill lie deep doctrinal divisions. Because most of the Syrian protesters are Sunnis, Qatar and Saudi Arabia would prefer to arm them to enable them to topple Assad and his Shia-backed Alawite supporters. The Shia countries want the opposite and argue that regime change will only lead to further chaos. The Iraqis know what they are talking about, having suffered nine years of foreign occupation and a violent internecine conflict fuelled by religious differences.

Thus the Baghdad summit will probably be remembered as the moment when the Arab League pulled back from any deeper involvement in the Syrian crisis.

Shortly after the summit ended the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states engaged in a "strategic forum" with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to discuss a more robust policy against Assad. When the world's superpower meets with the world's biggest exporters of oil it is hard not to avoid the impression that that's where the real power lies.