One month has passed since the Arab League decided to allow Syria to take back its seat at the League and send its officials to the body’s meetings, and some Arab countries have declared their willingness to normalise relations with Damascus.
However, despite the four-week gap, there have been no substantive improvements in relations between the other Arab countries and Syria on the political or economic fronts. Possible rapprochements have been rumoured, along with promises to reopen some consulates in Damascus.
The decision reached by the Arab foreign ministers to readmit Syria to the Arab League was not unanimous, and it will be difficult to arrive at normal relations between the Arab countries and the Syrian government if core prerequisites are not met.
These were decided during meetings in Amman before the recent Arab Summit meeting in Jeddah and include a roadmap to resolve the Syrian crisis with practical and effective steps to move gradually towards a resolution based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
It is unlikely that the Arab countries will move much further towards normalisation if the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad does not take tangible steps to prove its good faith on this path.
The Arab countries are cautious in part because they worry their relations with the West could be affected. The West rejects the notion of normalising relations with the Syrian regime and has imposed harsh sanctions against the regime and its supporters. It has also threatened to impose sanctions on countries that normalise ties with the regime without a quid pro quo, namely that the regime change its position regarding a political solution that is approved by the international community.
The first of the warning signs came with the cancellation of an EU-Arab League conference scheduled for 20 June. Germany’s Ambassador to Cairo Frank Hartmann said that the gathering was cancelled because Syria’s foreign minister would be attending, and Berlin had refused to admit his presence.
“We still do not see a basis for the Arab countries to normalise relations with the Syrian regime, because no progress has been made regarding UN Resolutions on Syria, improving conditions inside Syria, the return of refugees, and combatting smuggling and drug-trafficking,” Hartmann said.
In the US, bipartisan draft legislation by Democrat and Republican lawmakers in Congress has prevented the US government from recognising any Syrian government led by Bashar Al-Assad and bolstered Washington’s ability to impose sanctions as a warning to countries that normalise relations with it.
The representatives of countries concerned with the Syrian crisis at meetings held by the Syrian Negotiations Commission in Geneva on 4 June, including the US, Turkey, France, Britain, Canada, Switzerland, the EU, the Netherlands and Italy, in addition to Egypt and Qatar, said there needed to be a political transition in Syria, the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, and advances on the political process under UN auspices.
Some media outlets in the US have reported that the sanctions against Syria have not benefited the Syrian people. While the US refuses entry for members of the regime and freezes their bank accounts, these officials do not have bank accounts in the US and do not consider travelling to it. There are now calls to ease the sanctions, at least on humanitarian aid, which may explain why the US is not objecting to the delivery of some aid and humanitarian economic assistance if the regime reverses its refusal of a political solution.
All this does not mean Washington is beginning to view Syria as peripheral to its interests, however. “The US National Security Council has decided to keep troops in Syria, specifically east of the Euphrates, until further notice,” said opposition military figure Ahmed Rahhal.
“The US presence in Syria is not a matter for discussion or interpretation. To show it means business, the US army shipped an advanced missile system (HIMARS) to the east of the Euphrates, and the Department of Defence and US Central Command transferred other shipments from Jordan to Syria after withdrawing them from Iraq.”
“All these moves confirm that the US is staying in Syria not to fight the Islamic State group (IS) but to impose its presence.”
Meanwhile, both the Syrian regime and the Arabs are waiting for the other to take further steps. As they do so, the deteriorating security situation continues in Syria, the country remains carved up among different forces, the economy is in freefall, and the humanitarian crisis affecting millions of displaced people and refugees worsens.
“Returning the Syrian refugees to their homeland will be a challenge for the Syrian state, especially bringing about a political and social reconciliation that builds confidence,” said Samir Al-Itta , chair of the Circle of Arab Economists and professor of Political Economy at the University of Paris Sorbonne.
“This will be difficult while the incumbent regime remains in place without any real change in its structure. Syria must also prove it is moving towards a state of law, and not using laws and decrees as a means of extortion. In return, the US and EU will need to change their positions of blocking reconstruction and settle refugees in countries of asylum.”
“It is certain that there will be revisions of policies towards the region in the coming months, and this will clarify where the US, followed by Europe and Israel, wants to take the region.”
The US and EU issued sanctions against hundreds of Syrian and non-Syrian figures and officials, as well as Syrian and non-Syrian institutions that help and support the regime, a little more than a decade ago. The sanctions freeze assets, financial transactions, and bank accounts and ban entry, commercial dealings, imports and exports, and the sale of oil, among other things.
It will be difficult for the Arabs to bypass the Western sanctions in the absence of progress on the political track. The Arab foreign ministers exerted vigorous diplomatic efforts to bring Syria back to the Arab League as a gesture of goodwill and a first step. Now, everyone is waiting for the regime to reciprocate.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 15 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly