Syria to return to the Arab League?

Bassel Oudat , Thursday 7 Oct 2021

With discussion continuing about Syria’s possible return to full membership of the Arab League, commentators have been pointing to many obstacles

Syria to return to the Arab League
Travellers show their passports at the Jaber/Nassib border post between Jordan and Syria on the day of its reopening (photo: AFP)

It has been ten years since Syria’s membership of the Arab League was suspended, Arab diplomatic representation to Syria downgraded and Arab ambassadors recalled because the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad had not upheld League resolutions and had rejected the Arab Initiative for peace in the country.

Since then, there have been calls for Syria’s membership of the Arab League to be restored, mostly to boost Arab regional security and in the interest of the Arab countries. But none of these have translated into tangible results thus far.

The most recent move was a telephone call by Al-Assad to Jordanian King Abdullah II in early October, in which the two men discussed bilateral relations and ways to strengthen cooperation. The call came after earlier steps to improve relations between Jordan and the Syrian regime.

In July, King Abdullah suggested easing the sanctions on the Al-Assad regime when he visited US President Joe Biden in Washington, together with a new approach to handling the Syrian crisis. He also asked members of the US Congress to intensify efforts to reach a political solution to the crisis that would safeguard the unity of Syrian territory and the safe return of refugees.

In late September, Jordan announced it would reopen its border crossing with Syria after a meeting in Amman, the first in a decade, attended by Jordanian and Syrian cabinet ministers. Jordanian Airlines also decided to restart routes between Amman and Damascus, and earlier there was a meeting between the Jordanian chair of the joint chief of staff, Youssef Al-Heneiti, and Syrian Defence Minister Ali Ayoub in Amman to coordinate efforts at securing the border between the two countries.

This was followed by talks between Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Al-Safadi and Syrian counterpart Faysal Al-Miqdad in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meetings. There have also been consultations on piping natural gas and electricity from Egypt via Jordan to Syria and Lebanon.

Warmer relations between Jordan and Syria serve the interests of both countries. Jordan would benefit from much-needed economic opportunities, and Syria would reap political benefits to end its isolation, hoping to persuade other regional countries to follow suit. The Al-Assad regime believes this could rehabilitate its image abroad and on the home front, where it could be used to persuade its supporters that it has been victorious in the civil war.

The rapprochement is possible because Washington has given the green light, since US sanctions against the Syrian regime, the Caesar Act, prohibit dealings with it.

Saudi Arabia has been more hesitant than Jordan in re-establishing relations with Syria. Although Riyadh sent Saudi Intelligence Chief Khaled Humaidan on a visit to Damascus in May, such cooperation is not unusual and may not indicate a political rapprochement.

Although the official Syrian media implied that the meeting was a shift in Saudi Arabia’s commitment to regime change in Syria, Riyadh does not want to reconcile with Damascus without the regime making significant changes.

Saudi Arabia’s permanent representative to the UN, Abdullah Al-Moualimi, said in May that his country’s official position on Syria had not changed. He said that the Syrian regime should curb its attacks on rebel-held cities and refugee intimidation before Saudi Arabia would restore ties with the country.

Syria’s return to the Arab League would require a unanimous decision, he said, and most Arab countries remain hesitant about the situation in Syria. Saudi Arabia’s caution is due to its suspicion of Syria’s relationship with Tehran, and it needs confirmation that Damascus would distance itself from Tehran and not be its proxy in the region.

Egypt is also cautious about rebooting relations with the Syrian regime and is taking slow, deliberate and diplomatic steps in this direction. Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri met with his Syrian counterpart at the UN in New York end of September, also the first such meeting for a decade, with some analysts viewing it as an exploratory meeting by Cairo.

Egypt severed diplomatic ties with Damascus in the early years of the Syrian conflict and proposed initiatives to resolve the crisis that were turned down by the Al-Assad regime. Cairo has since taken a middle-of-the-road position focused on the need for peace, finding a political solution to the crisis, and guaranteeing Syria’s unity and an end to terrorism.

The Arab League itself says that the Arab countries disagree over Syria’s return to the fold. Secretary-General Ahmed Abul-Gheit said in September that “it is too early to talk about this matter,” and his deputy Hussam Zaki said that “we must look at the reasons why Syria’s membership was suspended and then perhaps there will be a new approach in finding a way to restore Syria’s seat.”

Lebanon, Algeria, Iraq, Tunisia, Sudan, the UAE and Bahrain support Syria’s return to the Arab fold. Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra said in August that the issue was on the agenda of the next Arab Summit meeting to be held in Algeria. Iraqi Foreign Minister Fouad Hussein has said that his country will continue efforts to bring Syria back to the League.

The UAE and Bahrain restored relations with the Syrian regime in late 2018, while Oman appointed an ambassador to Damascus in 2020.

The position of the US remains a key driver of events in Syria, even if these relate to inter-Arab relations. In late September, Washington declared it would not encourage others to normalise relations with the Syrian regime and that the US does not itself have plans to do so.

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank, has published a report including recommendations submitted to the Biden administration on Syria. It cautions against normalising relations between the Arab countries and Syria and says that any Arab-Syrian rapprochement could harm US interests in the region, pointing to the alliance between Syria and Iran, the resistance camp in Iraq and Palestine, as well as Russia and China.

Moscow supports the return of Syria to the Arab League as part of its support for Al-Assad and his return to the Arab stage. However, Russia is keeping the US position in mind and understands that without the green light from Washington Syria’s return to the Arab League would be impossible.

Although this is a strictly Arab issue, it cannot be discussed without consideration of Iran’s position. The Syrian regime has been using its closeness to Iran as leverage with some Arab governments. Al-Miqdad hinted as much when he proposed that his country could become a “mediator” between the Arab countries and Iran, saying that the Arab countries should respond “with goodwill” to Iran’s overtures.

The Al-Assad regime is making great efforts to end its political isolation and ease the impact of sanctions and the economic boycott. It wants to erase the image of itself that has been promoted through the period of civil conflict, using any opportunity to highlight its legitimacy.

But the normalisation of relations between the Arab countries and the Syrian regime will require many conditions to be met, most notably US approval. So far, this has not been forthcoming, and it is unlikely to emerge any time soon.

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