Syria’s Rehabilitation into the Arab League

Eight years after the Syrian crisis broke out, regional states are gradually coming around to reaccepting Damascus back into the Arab world’s diplomatic fold. Yet there is still no consensus among Arab League member-states regarding Syria’s reintegration into the body. The question of Bashar al-Assad’s legitimacy will likely remain a controversial issue, and one that brings Saudi Arabia and Qatar into an ironic, but unsurprising, alignment.

Despite widespread predictions that discussions about Syria’s expected return to the Arab League following its suspension in 2011 would dominate the organization’s 30th summit last month in Tunisia, it did not. Instead, a host of other issues, such as the U.S. administration’s position on the Golan Heights, Israeli attacks on Gaza, the Yemeni civil war, and Algeria’s political crisis did.

Thus, Syria remains suspended from the Arab League. Nonetheless, a growing number of member-states continue to prefer that Damascus return after all these years in the cold, and there is no reason to expect them to change their position. Furthermore, more member-states will most likely come around to the conclusion that President Bashar al-Assad’s victory in the Syrian civil war requires coming to terms with the inevitable and reaccepting his government into the Arab world’s diplomatic fold.

As more states in the Arab world embrace this position, there will be some challenging issues after the Syrian regime’s reentry into the league. They will have to contend with the regional ramifications. Iran, which sees Assad’s survival as Tehran’s victory, will likely be further emboldened after Syria returns to the league. The Islamic Republic will likely come to view the Syrian regime’s survival as a testimony to Iran’s capacity to achieve political objectives in the Arab world through a bold foreign policy, as well as a sign of weakness on the part of Saudi Arabia—Iran’s arch nemesis.

Domestic factors in Arab countries are in play too. The Arab governments that appear willing to forgive Assad for the past eight years must deal with the perceived contradiction in now embracing Syria’s regime. After all, since 2011 many media outlets and prominent political and religious figures across the Sunni Arab world, in the Gulf particularly, could not have more vocally condemned Assad for his human rights abuses, constantly referring to him as a “butcher” or “thug” who has lost his legitimacy.

To be sure, although the regional trend remains in favor of reaccepting Syria’s government, there is currently no consensus on this question. Perhaps 2020 will end before one is reached. That both a meeting of Arab ministers in Amman in late January and the last Arab League summit ended without any agreement on the matter of Assad’s return from the cold illustrates how the issue remains divisive, at least for the moment.

Among Gulf monarchies, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait have thus far not re-normalized diplomatic relations with Damascus.

Among Gulf monarchies, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait have thus far not re-normalized diplomatic relations with Damascus. For Doha and Riyadh, which provided most of the rebels’ support from the Gulf, the reasons for not restoring ties with the Syrian government mainly have to do with the fact that the conditions and factors that led to Damascus’ expulsion from the Arab League have not changed. Notwithstanding the crisis in Saudi-Qatari relations, Riyadh and Doha remain, ironically, on the same page regarding Syria’s internationally-recognized government.

Nonetheless, even though in January Qatar ruled out the possibility of reopening its embassy in Syria, earlier this month Damascus granted Qatar’s request that it give Qatar Airways permission to use Syrian airspace. This development further underscored the Assad government’s slow rehabilitation in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia’s official position is that dialogue with the Syrian government can only commence after the Syrian opposition unifies and can engage the Syrian regime with one voice. However, earlier this month Saudi representatives attended a gathering in Baghdad that included not only their counterparts from Syria but also from Iran and Turkey too, indicating at least some willingness on the Saudi leadership’s part to begin dealing with Assad’s regime as the legitimate Syrian government. There are also many reports emerging from sources close to authorities in Damascus and Moscow suggesting that Riyadh is on the verge of restoring relations with Syria.

Kuwait’s apprehension has more to do with Al Sabah’s desire to only pursue rapprochement with Damascus once the Arab League members decide to reaccept Syria. Kuwait’s other problem deals with the money donated to the anti-Assad rebellion by conservative Kuwaiti Salafists, a factor that continues to hamper relations behind the scenes.

On the other side, a handful of Arab states that had previously sided against Assad in some way or another have moved toward reaccepting his legitimacy. Although the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain were never as supportive of the Syrian rebels as were Saudi Arabia or Qatar—mainly due to Abu Dhabi’s fears of Islamists coming to power in a post-Assad Syria and Bahrain’s growing partnership with Russia—both the UAE and Bahrain restored their relations with Syria in December after having severed ties earlier on in the Syrian civil war. Also in December, Sudan’s then-President Omar Hassan al-Bashir visited Damascus as the first Arab head of state to meet Assad in the Syrian capital since 2011.

Morocco and Tunisia too, have voiced their preference for returning Syria to the Arab League.

Morocco and Tunisia too, have voiced their preference for returning Syria to the Arab League. Last year reports surfaced about the Mauritanian president’s plans to visit Assad in Damascus. Egypt switched from being anti- to pro-Assad after the July 3, 2013, coup. Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Oman, which never severed their ties with Syria at any point since 2011, clearly have no objections to other Arab governments restoring relations with Damascus.

A growing number of Arab states support re-embracing Syria’s government because of their own internal problems. To refuse to re-normalize relations with Damascus until Assad’s regime implements liberalizing reforms would set a precedent that no other state in the region has any interest in supporting. Governments in Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, and Sudan may have survived the uprisings of 2011, yet today they face major, unresolved internal political crises and delicate transitions.

Realistically, with many Arab governments’ legitimacy being challenged by segments of their own societies as older leaders step down or are removed, the ruling elite in most Arab capitals has no interest in witnessing a “Tunisia style” transition from autocracy to democracy in any Arab state, including Syria. Even though Syria was not readmitted to the Arab League late last month in Tunisia, the attending member-states’ leaders and representatives expressed their solidarity with the leadership in Algiers and Khartoum. Such rhetoric displayed a regime-to-regime level of support at a time of rising instability in the Arab world. Naturally, such regional conditions bode well for the prospects of the Assad government being fully reintegrated into the Middle East and North Africa’s diplomatic fold.

Security issues are in play too. Given that scores of violent extremist groups that spilled blood in Syria are transnational in nature and known to transit international boundaries in constant pursuit of new areas for asserting their influence, counter-terrorism cooperation with Syria’s government is favored. This interest in collaborating on counter-terrorism is especially strong with Tunisia and other Arab states that are home to thousands of Daesh militants who previously established themselves in Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor, Baghouz, and other Syrian cities and may try to return to their countries of origin. Moreover, as the Libyan civil war heats up and Daesh exploits the escalating violence to reassert itself into the North African country’s fragile political landscape, governments in the Maghreb will likely see reconciliation with Damascus as prudent for the purposes of intelligence sharing while terrorists transit throughout the region.

Syria is set to continue its gradual reintegration into the Arab world’s mainstream diplomatic arena.

Looking ahead, Syria is set to continue its gradual reintegration into the Arab world’s mainstream diplomatic arena. While each member of the Arab League has a unique perspective on the Syrian crisis as well as Assad’s leadership, more Arab governments seek to restore relations with Damascus. Most likely, however, the issue of the Damascus regime being re-accepted into the Arab League, when that eventually happens, will remain controversial in the region. The Arab states will probably be divided between regimes such as Algeria and Egypt’s (which see Assad’s “triumph” as a victory for the forces of “secularism” over jihadist terrorism), and those states that view Assad as a war criminal whom the region is re-embracing.