Conditional moves

Tuesday 9 May 2023

Bassel Oudat with the latest Syria’s return to the Arab fold

Conditional moves


A month into the flurry of Arab political and diplomatic activity around Syria, the Arab League (AL) adopted a resolution to allow the suspended member state to occupy its seat there once again, letting Syrian government representatives attend AL meetings as of 7 May. This takes place 11 years after Syria’s membership was suspended in reaction to the regime’s suppression of protests demanding its overthrow starting in March 2011.

The AL decision was announced shortly before an Arab summit hosted by Saudi Arabia on 19 May and was accompanied by reservations from Arab countries that refuse to normalise relations with the Syrian regime. The Syrian opposition and Western countries that had imposed sanctions on the regime were rather disappointed by it, and do not welcome an Arab rapprochement with Syria before the regime takes tangible steps towards a political solution that safeguards the country’s stability.

The resolution, which caused an uproar and required herculean diplomatic efforts – notably by the foreign ministers of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan – does not necessarily mean a return to normal relations or improved ties between the Arab countries and Syria. It is rather slanted towards bringing Syria back into the AL “structure” as the entity in charge of coordinating and bolstering political, cultural, economic and social programmes as well as mediating resolutions for disputes among its members, according to the AL charter at its inception.

The decision, however, comes with strings attached. It stipulates “the need to implement the commitments and agreements which were reached in Amman, and adopt the necessary mechanisms to activate the Arab role.” It is based on the roadmap to resolve the Syrian crisis approved by Damascus and drawn up by the same foreign ministers in Amman. It also stressed “the need to take tangible and effective steps to move towards a resolution of the crisis, according to a quid pro quo formula and according to Security Resolution 2254.” The Arab decision lies within the parametres of Resolution 2254, which drew up a clear roadmap for a political solution through mechanisms to change the constitution, holding free and monitored elections, ending military interventions, and sequential transition towards democracy in Syria. This may explain why much the global community is turning a blind eye to this Arab decision.

One of the clearest reasons given for the decision was stated by Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri in his address during the inaugural session of foreign ministers at the AL headquarters in Cairo: the need for a political solution from within Syria.

Some Arab parties, such as Qatar, have reservations about normalising relations with the Syrian regime without demanding something in return. Qatari Foreign Minister Majed bin Mohamed Al-Ansari said that Qatar’s position on normalising ties with the regime is primarily linked to making progress on a political solution that achieves the ambitions of the Syrian people. It appears that these skeptical countries are not convinced that this decision will contribute to progress in the political process. Overall, the legal and diplomatic framework of Syria’s return to the AL is limited to its ties to the AL, and does not require resuming diplomatic relations with all Arab countries. Restoring bilateral ties is the sovereign decision of each.

Washington objected to Syria’s return to its seat in the AL, stating that Damascus “does not deserve this step”. The US also doubted that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is interested in a solution to the crisis caused by the war in his country. Britain, meanwhile, asserted that it will continue to refuse to deal with Assad’s regime because “it continues to detain, torture and kill innocent Syrians, and does not show any signs of changing its behaviour towards its people.” The State Minister for Foreign Affairs asserted that the UN political process is the only path to a permanent and sustainable peace in Syria.

For its part the Syrian opposition coalition was appalled by the AL decision, and described the move as abandoning the Syrian people and withdrawing support for their legitimate demands. It described the decision as a waste of the great sacrifices made over 12 years of revolution against injustice, terrorism and despotism. The opposition added that shoring up the regime essentially means more brutality, terrorism and bloodshed by the regime against the Syrian people.

Saeed Moqbel, a researcher in the opposition, declared, “the Arab decision was a shock to the Syrian opposition, which did not expect Arab countries allied with the opposition to draw closer to the regime without the latter taking even one step towards a political solution. While the quid pro quo formula proposed by UN Special Envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen is broadly acceptable to the US and Europe, the Arab step is unilateral and will not be reciprocated by the regime. The proof is that the Syrian president, simultaneously, met with the president of Iran and signed major public and secret agreements, while Arabs are trying to contain Syria and bring it back to the Arab fold.”

The AL decision was issued based on the principle of quid pro quo, and therefore it is conditional on working towards a political solution that includes all Syrian actors. It requires a commitment on the part of Syria to implement these steps with specific mechanisms and within a specific timetable, under the supervision of a committee from the AL. All of this is specified in the text of the resolution.

Noureddin Mona, a politician and former Syrian minister of agriculture, argued, “Syria’s return to the Arab League is the start of a phase, not the end solution for the Syrian crisis. The Syrian issue is complicated, and a resolution is three-dimensional. First, domestically: it must be a Syrian-Syrian solution that ensures agreement among all Syrian actors to end the conflict, build consensus and conciliation. Secondly, regionally: it must safeguard the region’s stability and security, as well as end captagon smuggling and outstanding security issues. Thirdly, internationally: all foreign forces and armies must exit Syrian territories, sanctions must be lifted and reconstruction started.”

It is understood that Arab moves are rooted in the belief that continuing with a policy of isolating the regime was pointless. Concern over Iran’s massive infiltration of Syria, Russia’s growing role in the region and the US’ diminishing role is also a factor. This is in tune with recent Saudi-Iranian understandings. What is preventing accomplishing what the Arabs want, is the fact that the Syrian regime only made verbal promises to them. It promised to look into Arab demands and discuss them in the future. It did not sign a clear roadmap with timelines, and continues to boast through its media and officials that it refuses to give an inch.

 A version of this article appears in print in the 11 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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