Twelve years after Syria was suspended from the Arab League, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad attended the Arab Summit in Jeddah where he took his turn to speak just like any other Arab head-of-state. The summit ended relatively quickly with the reading of the closing statement drafted in the Arab foreign ministers’ meeting two days before. There were none of the usual closed-door sessions or any open discussion of the closing statement.
Arab leaders varied in the warmth with which they welcomed back Al-Assad. For the most part, the greetings seemed tepid, performed to follow protocol or behave consistently with their unexpected agreement on Syria’s return to the Arab League. This return, it should be stressed, is conditional. The agreement calls for the creation of a committee made up of delegates from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iraq, charged with monitoring the solution to the Syrian question. According to the third point in the summit’s resolution, reintegration would involve a reciprocal step-by-step process contingent on the positive measures Damascus must take to resolve the various aspects of the Syrian crisis.
Syria’s readmission to the Arab League, conditional or otherwise, was not welcomed in the West. Members of the US Congress on both sides of the aisle were furious, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers rushed to draft a bill to prevent Washington from normalising relations with Damascus and to enhance Washington’s powers to impose sanctions. The bill is meant as a warning to all other governments that might contemplate normalising relations with Al-Assad.
The European Commission issued a statement rejecting normalisation with Al-Assad without a political solution in accordance with UN resolutions. The German Foreign Ministry said that it saw no changes on the ground in Syria to justify normalisation with Al-Assad, while the British Foreign Office issued a statement stressing British opposition to dealing with the Al-Assad regime “which continues to arrest, torture and kill innocent Syrians without showing any sign of change in behaviour towards his people.”
But there is nothing in the Arab Summit’s resolutions that obliges member states to normalise relations with Syria. The resolutions have merely readmitted Syria to the Arab League, and left the matter of restoring bilateral relations with Damascus to individual states to decide as they see fit.
Many Arabs anticipate that the Syrian regime will take concrete steps in response to being welcomed back into the Arab fold, especially in light of its long and painful regional and international isolation.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has been among the most optimistic in this regard. Nevertheless, in his speech in Jeddah, he stressed that Egypt continues to support the application of UN Resolution 2254 on Syria. He was the only Arab leader at the summit to refer to the resolution, which the international community sees as the sole acceptable avenue to resolving the Syrian question.
Qatar, by contrast, was particularly reluctant to approve Syria’s return to the league “for free.” Before the summit, Doha stated that it had only agreed in order not to break with the Arab consensus.
According to the agreement drafted by Arab foreign ministers, Syria’s readmission into the League is based on its implementation of a roadmap involving the start of a political process that includes stakeholders in Syria, an end to foreign interventions, and a halt to captagon smuggling to neighbouring countries. Damascus will be expected to make progress on such matters in accordance with specified steps and mechanisms, within specific timeframes and under the supervision of the Arab League committee on Syria.
One of the first issues Syria must address in this framework is the safe return of Syrian refugees. But this is clearly a process that can not be accomplished easily. Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Ayman Sousan insisted that Arab countries had to start helping Syria with reconstruction first and this, in turn, necessitated the lifting of sanctions. “There are requirements for the return of refugees,” he said, “the most important being the need to provide essential services in the areas they are to return to. It is important to appreciate the correlation between their return and the reconstruction needed to provide a dignified return for them. How is it possible for reconstruction to take place under the conditions of sanctions and economic blockade?”
Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad added, “we are looking forward to an effective Arab role in helping Syrian refugees return home. Certainly, the reconstruction process will facilitate their return.”
“Judging by the statements Syrian officials made during the summit, Syria wants an end to the sanctions and it wants financial assistance before it turns its mind to the return of the refugees,” Syrian political analyst Said Muqbil told Al-Ahram Weekly. “In other words, the regime insists on financial support as a precondition for undertaking any of the measures it agreed on with the Arabs. This is not exactly what the Arabs were talking about when they discussed Syria’s return to the Arab League.”
Regarding the Syrian-Iranian dimension, it appears that Arab states understand that this relationship is too strong and deep to be abruptly ended or curtailed. In fact, only days before the summit, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited Syria. It was the first visit by an Iranian president to Syria since the uprising began in 2011 and it was intended to signal to the summit participants that Iran was in Syria to stay. This was underscored by a number of agreements signed between Raisi and Al-Assad on long-term cooperation in oil, trade and investment.
The Arabs also expect progress towards a political solution to take place in accordance with UN Resolution 2254, which is the only frame of reference that promises to meet the requirements for a lasting solution. However, Damascus has stated on numerous occasions that it regards that resolution as an unwarranted intervention in Syria’s domestic affairs. The past 12 years have also shown that Al-Assad has been able to manoeuvre around the resolution and void it of substance. As it so far appears unlikely that the summit resolutions will lead to an effective Arab role in pressuring the Syrian regime to work towards a political solution in this framework, the Arabs must be expecting Al-Assad to take other significant steps towards a political solution in the hope seeing the restoration of stability and security and the beginning of reconstruction and sustainable development.
What might dampen Arab hope in what is desired in exchange for Syria’s return to the Arab League is that the Arabs have only received oral promises from Damascus in the foreign ministers’ meetings that were held ahead of the summit in Jeddah and Amman. Syria merely agreed to discuss and address the Arabs’ central concerns in detail in the future; it did not sign onto an explicit time-bound roadmap.
As Muqbil observed: “That Syria had not responded to Arab demands ahead of the summit is clear from the Syrian foreign minister’s refusal to accept any dictates regarding domestic reform and his insistence that the political process should take place ‘at the depth and pace set by Damascus.’” Muqbil also cited some examples of the discourse in the official Syrian media, such as: “The system of government in Syria is a domestic concern and no one has the right to impose their theories on this matter”; “Tehran has the ability to fill the void left by the Arabs, in general, and Saudi Arabia, in particular”; and “The Arab League is sick and needs to reform itself.”
After the revolution erupted in Syria about 12 years ago, the Arab League stepped forward with many reasonable initiatives to stop the violence and end the conflict in Syria. However, the Syrian regime rejected them or voided those it was forced to accept of all substance. This is what drove the Arab League to suspend Syria’s membership. Will we see a repeat of this after all these years? Will the Arab League discover that Syria has not come through on any of the promises it made in exchange for getting its seat back? Can Syria turn a blind eye to Syrian domestic matters, as though nothing had happened in the country for over a decade?
Now that the summit is over, attention will turn to Damascus. The Arabs will be testing the extent to which it is serious about restarting Arab relations on a proper footing in which they reach out to help Syria with reconstruction in exchange for progress towards an international solution to the Syrian conflict, inclusive of dialogue with the opposition, release of detainees and the safe return of millions of refugees. Damascus, for its part, has its hopes set on an end to Western sanctions and an influx of billions of dollars in aid so that it can prevent the production and smuggling of illegal drugs, support the return of refugees and engage in nationwide reconstruction.
Whatever might be said, the Arabs have not and will not overstep Washington’s red lines. They remain committed to the UN resolutions, for the Syrian question is an international one before it is an Arab one. Damascus will continue to manoeuvre to secure the best possible outcomes for it, so it is wise to keep expectations low. Still, what does it matter if Damascus manoeuvres so long as it does not violate international resolutions? What is important is that the Arabs should not come away empty handed and that the Syrians finally have some hope to hold onto after 12 years of incessant tragedy.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly