During an Arab economic summit held in January in Beirut, Arab League chief Houssam Zaki said that Syria’s return to the League was “inevitable.” Syria had been suspended from the League, not expelled, he explained.
Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit took a somewhat different view, stating that there was no common Arab position on reinstating Syria as a member.
Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit took a somewhat different view, stating that there was no common Arab position on reinstating Syria as a member. For Syria to be reinstated, members of the Arab League must reach a consensus. Syria, which was one of the League’s founding members in 1945, is now garnering support from several Arab states ahead of the League summit to be held in Tunisia in March.
While the European Union (EU) has opposed the Arab states’ moves to renew their relations with Syria, Russia—Assad’s key ally—is encouraging the bloc’s members to improve their diplomatic ties with Damascus.
Arab States Renew Relations with Assad
In an unexpected move, several Arab leaders have ignored the widespread international condemnation of the brutal Syrian regime, to rekindle their diplomatic ties with the estranged Assad. In mid-December 2018, Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir visited Damascus, becoming the first Arab League leader to set foot in Syrian territory since the outbreak of the civil war eight years ago.
During the meeting, the two leaders stressed the need to restore good relations between Sudan and Syria. Al-Bashir was quoted saying that he hoped Syria would recover its important role in the region as soon as possible, adding that Sudan was ready to do its utmost to support Syria’s territorial integrity. Assad stated that al-Bashir’s visit to Damascus provided a strong impetus for the restoration of the two countries’ relations “to the way it was before the war.”
The Arab states’ attempt to normalize relations with Assad followed U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision in December 2018 to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. After President Trump declared the defeat of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Turkey sought to take advantage of U.S. troops’ withdrawal by launching a military operation against the U.S.-backed Kurds of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Turkey sees the SDF as a “terrorist group” that poses a threat to its government.
The pullout of U.S. troops and the rise of a jihadi group in northwestern Syria mark a critical point in the Syrian civil war. Both Turkey, Assad’s enemy, and his ally, Iran (a sworn rival of the Arab League) aim to increase their influence in the country. Consequently, the leading members of the Arab League now see a need to reassert their influence in Syria
Eroding the Influence of Iran and Turkey in Syria
After al-Bashir’s controversial visit to Damascus, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which at the start of the war funded anti-Assad rebels, also made an unprecedented diplomatic move.
After al-Bashir’s controversial visit to Damascus, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which at the start of the war funded anti-Assad rebels, also made an unprecedented diplomatic move. The UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus to welcome Syria back into the Arab fold and neutralize Iran’s influence in the region. The UAE intended to consolidate “the Arab role” in support of Syria’s independence and sovereignty and counter risky “regional interference in ‘Arab, Syrian affairs.’” The UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, declared on Twitter that the Arab role was necessary to counter the incursion of Iran and Turkey into Syria.
A day later, Bahrain, which had also backed the opposition against Assad, issued a statement that “work was continuing” at its embassy in Syria. Bahrain echoed the UAE’s announcement to “preserve the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria and prevent the risk of regional interference in its affairs.” The ministry added that Syria’s mission in Bahrain was in operation and flights between the two countries ongoing.
While the UAE and Bahrain argued that their priority was to protect Syria from non-Arab regional powers, Kuwait said that the Arab states’ shared decisions required permission from the Arab League. Kuwait, which had kept the Syrian embassy open and did not back the rebels, added that it expected more Arab countries to join the UAE and Bahrain. However, it asserted that the Kuwaiti embassy would only open in Damascus once the Arab League gave the green light.
Lebanon, on the other hand, has urged the Arab League to reinstate Syria, calling its exclusion from the Arab economic summit a “historic shame.” Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil argued that: “Syria should be in our arms rather than throwing it in the arms of terrorism . . . . We should not wait to get permission for its return.”
Earlier this month, Sputnik reported that, according to an unnamed source, at least eight members of the Arab League—Lebanon, Algeria, Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, the UAE and Bahrain—supported the readmittance of Syria. One glaring exception was Qatar, which was one of the first Arab states to suggest Syria’s suspension.
The tiny but powerful Gulf state reaffirmed its opposition to Syria’s reinstatement in January, stating that it saw no “encouraging factor” to normalize relations. Once again, Qatar finds itself on the opposite side of an issue with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Arab states. It must be noted that Qatar has been in a serious diplomatic conflict with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Bahrain since 2017 when it was accused of funding Syrian jihadi rebel groups (including some supported by Turkey) and it became the target of a blockade.
Russia’s Robust Lobbying
On a tour of North Africa, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov paid a visit to Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco in late January to rekindle ties between the Maghreb and Assad. The minister called on the countries to back Moscow’s bid to return Syria to the Arab bloc.
“We have a common view on the need to do everything possible to prevent the erosion of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic, to strive for Syria to return to the Arab family and resume its participation in the Arab League,” Lavrov said in Tunisia. In Tunis, there was an explicit endorsement of the Russian bid, with the Tunisian foreign minister saying that Syria’s “natural place” is within the Arab League.
However, Tunisia, which was the epicenter of the pro-democracy protests that triggered the Arab Spring in late 2011, has found itself in a delicate position since the Arab League summit will take place in Tunis. There have been rumors that Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi was likely to invite Assad to the event. However, Tunisia has officially denied them, stating that it was the Arab League that decided whether or not Syria attended the summit.
Algeria expressed its own commitment to settle the situation with Syria, while Morocco hinted that it supported dialogue with other Arab states about Syria’s reinstatement.
Algeria expressed its own commitment to settle the situation with Syria, while Morocco hinted that it supported dialogue with other Arab states about Syria’s reinstatement. “There should be Arab coordination concerning Syria’s return to the Arab League,” said Nasser Bourita, Morocco’s foreign minister.
After meeting with Lavrov in Moscow, Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohamed Al-Hakim said that Iraq supported the reinstatement of Syria to the Arab League, further demonstrating the power of Russia’s lobbying in the Middle East. However, while Russia and most Arab states support Syria’s return to the pan-Arab regional bloc, the EU opposes it.
The EU’s Opposition
In December, the EU warned Egypt, which had hinted at reinstating Syria, that the decision would be premature. It emphasized that: “the current time is not appropriate to normalize relations with Syria, nor to reintegrate Syria into international organizations.” Egypt appears to have heard the EU’s message, announcing on February 4 that it would not support Syria’s reinstatement.
In response, during a ministerial meeting between the EU and the Arab League held in Brussels in early February, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad declared that Assad would overcome any attempts to prevent Syria’s return to the Arab League.
As Assad, backed by Russia, gradually regains authority over Syria, it appears that Arab rulers are likely to be re-establishing diplomatic relations with him despite EU disapproval. However, whether Syria is in fact welcomed back to the League will be revealed when the 22 members meet in Tunisia in March.