Since its founding in 1945, the League of Arab States has served as the premier organization of the Arab world. As a venue for diplomacy and economic cooperation throughout its history, the Arab League has worked to resolve difficult disputes and enhance inter-Arab relations.
Damascus’ Arab League membership has been suspended since 2011. The hope for a political transition and a peaceful resolution to the Syrian conflict remains ever distant as several Arab states have made concerted efforts to reestablish relations with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Connecting the Dots Between Syria and the Arab World
Three years after the last annual summit was held in March 2019, the Arab League plans to meet again in November, in Algeria, to deliberate on the issue of Syria’s return. Although the official reason for the delay was due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Arab League Assistant Secretary-General Hossam Zaki noted that the extra time might allow for the opportunity to “improve political climates” in the Middle East and North Africa.
The Arab League plans to meet again in November to deliberate on the issue of Syria’s return.
Questions remain on when and what conditions the bloc will officially approve for Syria’s return. In mid-February, the Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit said there was “no consensus” on Syria’s return to the organization.
There is some speculation on whether Syria can be forced to break free from Iran in order to restore its standing in the region. Still under international sanctions, Syria’s two main partners, Iran and Russia, are unlikely at this juncture to render much financial support in terms of economic development or reconstruction in post-war Syria.
A similar effort by the members of the wealthy Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is already under way to win over Iran’s neighbor, Iraq.
Despite Russia facing heavy diplomatic and economic blowback for its invasion of Ukraine, the Arab countries by and large are maintaining their ties to Moscow. Russia is thus in a key position to push forward its agenda of ending Assad’s isolation in the Arab world.
Iran, although heavily invested in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, is still largely considered a regional adversary by the GCC countries, Egypt, and Jordan. In addition, the negotiations between Iran and the United States over its nuclear program remain precarious as ever.
Even within the Assad regime, there are reportedly factions –– most notably associated with Syria’s First Lady, Asma al-Assad –– who want to lessen Damascus’ dependency on Iranian support. These figures tend to favor Moscow and desire to see Syria fully reintegrated into the Arab community.
Writing in The National Interest, Adnan Nasser noted “there has been a convergence of interests between the Syrian people, who need regional and international support to rebuild their country, and the Arab Gulf countries, which have enormous wealth and interests in Syria. This is increasing the chances of normalization between Syria and the Arabs.”
Syria’s normalization in the Arab world continues to unfold.
Syria’s normalization in the region continues to unfold, with only a few Arab countries, most prominently Saudi Arabia and Qatar, still holding out on earnestly fostering ties with Assad. For months, it appears that Syria’s return to the Arab League, and by extension, the Arab fold, is drawing close.
But beyond Syria’s potential to return to the Arab League, the question of Iran presents a difficult challenge. As previously noted by Inside Arabia, Iran’s relations with Syria are highly unlikely to rupture anytime soon.
Will Christou, a Beirut-based journalist covering Syria, told Inside Arabia, “This whole theory –– that Arab re-engagement with Syria will drive a wedge between it and Iran –– seems to have originated in Washington, not Abu Dhabi, or anywhere else in the region.”
Experts have pointed out that if Syria indeed returns to the Arab League, there is unlikely to be any real change on the ground regarding Iran’s military influence in Syria and beyond.
Dr. Imad Harb wrote for the Arab Center of Washington DC: “The question that begs an answer is, what can the Arab world tangibly gain from ending its suspension of the Syrian regime’s membership in the Arab League? After all, Syria continues to be the prize Russia and Iran won after a decade of war and destruction,” further noting that Iran was in “no mood” to reduce the presence of its friendly militias in Syria, Lebanon, or Iraq.
“Syria continues to be the prize Russia and Iran won after a decade of war and destruction.”
Instead, it will be economic interests that help drive Syria’s return to the bloc.
Ruwan Al-Rejoleh, a Middle East consultant based in DC, explained to Inside Arabia that the aim to pull Syria away from Iran was “the obvious reason behind the latest rapprochement between the UAE [United Arab Emirates] and Assad consolidated by mutual official visits to Damascus and Abu Dhabi. However, the complicated and desperate need for energy projects might dictate another reality.”
Rejoleh added, “In early January 2022, Lebanese, Syrian, and Jordanian officials signed a deal brokered by the United States. The US also brokered another deal that will see Egypt sending natural gas to Jordan, which will use it to generate electricity and deliver it to Lebanon through Syria. Most likely, it will be Israeli natural gas imported by Egypt. Finally, the Russian invasion of Ukraine created another pressing reality in which the world, due to US sanctions on Russia’s natural gas, will be looking to other sources of energy, namely Europe from countries like Algeria and Qatar.”
“Algeria was in the camp of having Assad come back and, since it is hosting the Arab League. It might make another calculation given the new opportunities provided to it with US blessings. Therefore, it is possible that bringing Syria back to the Arab League won’t be on its agenda this year, given the fluid and unclear situation,” she explained. “However, such uncertainty can’t last forever, especially since waiving certain US sanctions should be addressed if the neighboring countries [are] going to move forward with them.”
Syria’s Historic Geopolitical Games
There is a parallel diplomatic track underway in the Arab world as the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan all have established formal ties with Israel. The United States, UAE, and Israel –– and to a certain extent, Russia –– would attempt to work within this framework towards reducing Iran’s military footprint within Syria.
The possibility of Syria someday reaching a peace agreement with Israel has long been considered farfetched, but there are some historical precedents. Prior to the Syrian Civil War, US diplomats allegedly came close to getting Assad to relinquish ties with Hezbollah and Iran, in exchange for recovering the Golan Heights from Israel.
“It doesn’t look like Syria, Lebanon, or Iraq will join the Abraham Accords as it stands right now. However, each country has been engaging with Israel indirectly for energy purposes, such as [Lebanon establishing] maritime borders [with]…Israel for natural gas. Syria and Iraq will depend on Israel’s natural gas indirectly, being supplied via Egypt,” Al-Rejoleh said.
She added, “This will give an opportunity for the UAE to play a peace broker in the long term . . . .As for the Arab League as a whole, unless Saudi Arabia takes serious steps toward formalizing its relations by joining the circle of peace,” the Arab League will not change its stance on Israel very much.
This also goes for Syria. Christou told Inside Arabia, “We will not see Syria rejoin the Arab League until Saudi Arabia and Qatar soften their stance on the Syrian regime –– against which their current foreign policy says they are bitterly opposed. If the Iran deal happens, this will probably be sooner rather than later.”
“We will not see Syria rejoin the Arab League until Saudi Arabia and Qatar soften their stance on the Syrian regime.”
In late March, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian met with Assad and the head of Syria’s National Security Bureau, Major General Ali Mamlouk, in Damascus. During the visit, the Iranian delegation signaled that Iran welcomed the UAE’s moves towards reconciliation with Damascus.
However, despite the increase in inter-Arab relations with Syria, it is unlikely that Assad would be willing to reduce or completely cut off relations with Iran, given the enormous amount of assistance Tehran has provided to save his regime. The Syrians will be inclined to open up ties with as many Arab countries as possible, while offering very little of substance in return.
Christou also pointed out that Syria’s history “shows that Assad is more than comfortable playing foreign powers off of each other. He would not feel a reason to turn against the ‘axis of resistance’ he claims he is a part of, but is more than comfortable sitting on the fence and milking both sides.”
Syria still faces the long-term threat of armed opposition in the Idlib Province, as well as from the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces in the country’s northeast. Ultimately, Damascus is content to be patient and wait for it to be welcomed back to the Arab League, while holding onto every pillar of military support that allows Assad to ensure he will stay in power.