After more than a year of wrangling, it has become abundantly clear that Algeria’s attempts to bring Syria to the upcoming Arab Summit meeting in Algiers on 1 and 2 November have failed. Other Arab countries maintain that relations with Syria must remain severed and reject any form of engagement with the Syrian regime.
Algeria has attempted to save face by saying that Syria does not want to participate in the summit in current circumstances. The Algerian foreign minister issued a statement on 4 September noting that Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad had said his country “preferred the issue of unfreezing its seat at the Arab League not to be discussed during the Algiers Summit, as [Syria’s] contribution to uniting Arab ranks in the face of challenges posed by current conditions on the regional and global fronts.”
Mekdad made the statements during a telephone call with his Algerian counterpart Ramtane Lamamra.
It was always unlikely that Algeria would succeed in its endeavours to bring Syria to Algiers. Some heavyweight Gulf states did not budge in their opposition, while the US cautioned against normalising relations with the Syrian regime.
Syria’s membership of the Arab League was suspended on 16 November 2011. Arab diplomatic representation in Syria was scaled back, and ambassadors were withdrawn because the regime did not uphold Arab League resolutions, rejected Arab peace initiatives, and used excessive force against protesters demanding democratic reforms.
Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune earlier stated that his country was trying to make Syria’s return to the Arab League a success. Russia contributed to Algeria’s efforts, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stating in May that Moscow had contacted the Arab countries for support in bringing Syria back into the Arab fold.
This is not the first time that some Arab countries have attempted to rehabilitate the Syrian regime by allowing it to return to the Arab League. Over the past 11 years, there have been many calls for its return, mostly under the pretext of “boosting regional Arab security” and “in the interest of the Arab countries” and “the end of war in Syria.”
But none of these attempts have gained much traction, and they have come primarily from countries with ties to Syria such as Algeria, Iraq, and Lebanon.
Other countries have been more cautious: Jordan sought to reintegrate Syria in the League with preconditions one year ago, when King Abdullah presented an initiative to the White House that proposed scaling back sanctions on the Syrian regime. He also suggested a new approach focused on intensifying international efforts to reach a political solution preserving Syria’s unity.
But Saudi Arabia and Qatar have dug in their heels, and officials in both countries have said it is too early for such a move. They have linked their positions to progress on a political solution compliant with international and UN resolutions, notably UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
Egypt has also been taking cautious steps towards the Syrian regime that have been focused on bringing about peace and finding a political solution to the Syrian crisis while guaranteeing Syrian unity and eliminating terrorism.
The Syrian regime itself has tried to capitalise on the positions of countries that support its return to the League, attempting to convince others to follow suit. It believes its return to the League will be the first step towards rehabilitating the regime, giving it global legitimacy and Arab and international recognition.
But “there are many obstacles hindering Arab attempts at rapprochement and reintegrating the Syrian regime in the Arab League,” said Syrian political analyst and opposition member Saeed Moqbel.
“Primarily, they collide with US red lines. The US Caesar Act [which implements sanctions against Syria] blocks any cooperation with the Syrian regime, and Arab countries do not want to violate it.”
“Syria’s return to the Arab League would also require a unanimous vote. Most Arab countries still have reservations about the situation in Syria, mainly due to the fact that the Gulf states view the relationship between the Syrian regime and Iran with suspicion. They want confirmation that Damascus will move away from Tehran and not play the role of Iran’s proxy in the region.”
The Syrian opposition did not want the regime to be invited to the Arab Summit in Algiers and has been working with its allies in the West to block it. It has also criticised Arab countries that are pursuing the invitation before there is a change in the regime’s strategies and a political solution to the crisis based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
This calls for a blanket ceasefire, the adoption of a new constitution, and the creation of a transitional governing body that will hold elections under international supervision.
Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Abul-Gheit said “it is too early to talk about this,” referring to attempts to reintegrate Syria into the League.
Syrian opposition member Iyad Barakat told Al-Ahram Weekly that “the key component regarding Syria’s return to the Arab League is the position of the US. It is not encouraging others to normalise or raise their level of diplomatic relations with the Syrian regime. As long as there is the US position banning engagement with the regime, normalisation will not happen.”
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank, recently published an article entitled “The Policy Consequences of Arab State Normalisation with the Al-Assad Regime” saying that any Arab rapprochement with the Syrian regime would be a plain admission of the failure of the US project in the region and would harm US interests.
Engaging with the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad would further erode international norms and negatively impact the anti-Islamic State (IS) group campaign, the article said. It would be a victory for the regional alliance represented by Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Russia and China. Allowing Al-Assad to regain legitimacy would be a grave strategic mistake, it stated.
Meanwhile, the Syrian regime and some Arab countries are seeking to reduce the political isolation of the regime and mitigate the impact of the Arab, European, and US sanctions and economic boycott imposed on Syria.
These efforts have so far failed, and it will be difficult to turn them into tangible policy any time soon, unless the Syrian regime takes real steps towards a political solution compliant with international resolutions.
Without such steps, there will be no Arab consensus and no early readmission of Syria to the Arab League.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.