Syria could return to the Arab league
Representatives from nine Arab nations have gathered in Saudi Arabia to explore the prospect of restoring ties with Syria and its readmission into the Arab League. The meeting, held at Saudi Arabia’s request, is being attended by ministers and senior officials from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates), as well as Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan. Syria was suspended from the Arab League after the government, led by President Bashar al-Assad, violently cracked down on pro-democracy demonstrations in 2011.
Since the start of the 12-year-long war in Syria, many Middle Eastern countries have avoided contact with al-Assad and his government, and the Western world has largely shunned him.
The war has resulted in the deaths of over half a million people and has displaced almost half of Syria’s pre-war population. However, Saudi Arabia, which had previously been resistant to engaging with al-Assad, has recognized the need for a new approach following its rapprochement with Iran, Syria’s key regional ally.
In a significant step, the Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad visited Riyadh on Wednesday for talks, and the two countries have agreed to reopen their embassies soon. Flights and consular services are also expected to resume between the two nations, marking the first time such services will be available since the start of the conflict.
What is behind this shift?
Many Arab states are shifting towards a more independent and regional foreign policy, shifting away from the dependence on US foreign policy. Increasingly visible and deep ties with Russia and other Eastern powers, as well as repairing ties with regional powerhouses like Turkiye, as we have seen with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have been part of this shift. Repairing ties with Syria, is also part of this trend, as the Arab states intend to increase cooperation with the country, who’s economic and geopolitical importance remains intact, but cooperation was previously blocked by cut ties with the Assad regime.
Since 2011, the situation has changed dramatically, and the Assad regime has gained control of most of the country, many stay they have practically won, and Arab states see this as a geopolitical reality that they must simply deal with.
On April 3, 2023, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied appointed an ambassador to Damascus, and Jordan proposed an initiative to end the suspension of Syria’s seat in the Arab League. Oman is the only Arab Gulf state that recognizes the Assad regime as the legitimate ruling authority in Syria, as it restored its ambassador to Damascus on October 4, 2020.
Sudan resumed normalizing its relations with the Syrian regime after former President Omar al-Bashir visited Damascus and met with al-Assad in December 2018. The UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus on December 27, 2018, and al-Assad recently visited the capital of Abu Dhabi. Bahrain announced in December 2018 that it would continue to work at its embassy in Syria.
Mauritania appointed an ambassador to Damascus on March 12, 2020, and Algeria and Iraq did not sever their relations with the Syrian regime and supported Syria’s return to the Arab League. Palestine also did not cut its ties with Damascus, while Saudi Arabia received the regime’s Foreign Minister Faisal Al-Miqdad on Wednesday, the first visit in 12 years. Egypt maintains a low level of diplomatic representation with the regime and supports resuming relations, provided there is Arab consensus. Meanwhile, Lebanon, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Djibouti, and Comoros have been reviewing the situation and adhering to the Arab League’s decisions.
Not all states in agreement
However, despite this change, not all Arab states are in agreement on this.
Qatar has refrained from normalizing ties with the Syrian regime and is the only Arab country that hosts an ambassador for the Syrian opposition coalition.
In addition, Kuwaiti authorities denied in November 2018 the validity of news about the reopening of its embassy in Damascus.
So far, Morocco has not announced any decision regarding the resumption of relations with the Syrian regime.
On Thursday, Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani stated that the talk of Syria’s return to the Arab League is mere speculation, as the original reasons for suspending Syria’s membership still exist. He added that the decision on Syria’s return to the Arab League ultimately rests with the Syrian people.
Qatar withdrew its ambassador from Damascus in 2011 and severed diplomatic ties with the Bashar Al-Assad regime after its violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests. Media reports have recently suggested that Syria might be invited to attend the Arab League Summit in Saudi Arabia next month.