Middle East states seek 'mechanism' to bring Syria back to Arab League

Ties with Damascus being mended slowly by some countries in the region to re-engage with the Assad regime

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad waves to supporters in the eastern Ghouta region near the Syrian capital of Damascus. It is 10 years since Syria was expelled from the Arab League. AP

Regional countries driving to re-engage with Syria are seeking a mechanism and consensus to readmit Damascus to the Arab League, senior Middle East diplomats and officials told The National.

It is a decade since the regional diplomatic body expelled Syria over the government's bloody crackdown on pro-reform and democracy protesters that ignited the civil war that still divides the country. However, senior Middle Eastern diplomats have previously said the move was a mistake as it removed any regional voice in trying to mediate with Damascus to end the bloodshed, effectively abdicating collective responsibility.

That could now change, officials say.

“That would take time and may not be in place in time for the Algeria summit in March [2022],” an official at the Cairo-based Arab League told The National.

“The question of Syria’s readmission is chiefly dealt with now behind closed doors.”

As some countries in the 22-member organisation keep their wait-and-see strategy, others have said they want to see a political agreement between Damascus and opposition groups before Syria can be brought back to the Arab League.

"Nine Arab foreign ministers have informed us that they feel that Syria's absence has hurt joint Arab endeavours and that Syria must be back sooner than later," said the official. "The decision to suspend Syria's membership [in 2011] was hasty and contributed to the complexity of the situation in Syria."

In recent months, there have been clear signals at a bilateral level of a warming of relations between Syria and several Arab League members.

Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, met President Bashar Al Assad in Damascus in November. The UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus in December 2018.

Sources in Amman say that Jordan is looking at restoring full relations with Syria after recent security and border management meetings.

“Jordanian officials have been pointing out potential economic benefits as a key motive behind active steps the kingdom took in the past three months to accommodate President Assad,” a Jordanian official told The National. “When it comes to commercial ties with Syria, there are no holds barred.”

The kingdom has relaxed restrictions on border crossings to Syria, whose economy has shrunk by around 60 per cent since the start of the conflict, the World Bank says. It further seeks close Syrian co-operation to put an end to cross-border drug smuggling.

Jordan has served as a transit country for Captagon, given its land route and proximity to destination markets in the region.

In October, Jordan's King Abdullah received a phone call from Mr Al Assad. At the 17th Manama Dialogue in the Bahrain's capital city this month, Ayman Safadi, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates, urged all Arab countries to act in unison and help bring an end to the suffering of the Syrian people.

Syria's defence minister also visited Jordan last September, the first such meeting since the Syrian conflict erupted a decade ago.

But the kingdom – one of the biggest recipients of annual US aid – backtracked in October from an announced plan to reactivate flights between Amman and Damascus, which diplomats say would require a waiver from US sanctions on the Assad government.

The Assad regime has indeed survived the brutal conflict that has killed more than 350,000 people and displaced half of Syria’s population.

Backed by Iran and Russia, it has reasserted control over most of the major cities his government once lost.

Arab summit in Algeria

The Arab-Syrian overtures came before an Arab summit hosted by Algeria, a staunch supporter of lifting the suspension of Syria’s membership in the League.

"When we organise an Arab summit, it must be a unifying summit and Syria needs to be present," Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune said last week.

His Foreign Minister, Ramtane Lamamra, said Syria would be first and foremost on the agenda of the meeting. He told local media that Algeria saw eye-to-eye with other Arab countries supporting Syria’s return.

The Tunisian counterpart, Othman Jerandi, met Syria’s leading diplomat Faisal Miqdad in September on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meetings in New York.

Egyptian Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukry, also met Mr Miqdad in New York for the first time in more than a decade. His country has agreed to export natural gas to help ameliorate Lebanon’s fuel crisis via a pipeline that runs through Syria.

“There was a western project to destroy Syria and unfortunately some Arab countries joined forces and intervened and violated the territorial integrity of Damascus. Turkey and the Tunisian Troika were part of this axis until [former] president Beji Caid Essebsi was elected in 2014," former Tunisian foreign minister, Ahmed Waniss, told The National, referring to the alliance of parties that ruled Tunisia briefly after the first parliamentary elections in 2011 after the downfall of former president, Zeine Elabidine Ben Ali.

Iraq echoes the same stance. In 2011, It abstained from voting for suspending Syria’s membership at the League.

For years, Iraqi officials have been lobbying to reinstate Syria but these efforts have yielded no progress.

"They see us as an ally to Al Assad as if we're working for the benefit of his regime other than the benefit for the whole region, mainly Syria's neighbours," an adviser to Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi told The National.

Sworn in last September after one year of a devastating blast in Beirut, Lebanon’s government has not officially stated its position on Syria’s reintegration into the Arab League. The Cabinet has been paralysed by several disputes caused by a several attempts by politicians to block the probe into the devastating explosion on August 4, 2020 in Beirut, as well as a diplomatic row with Gulf countries.

“Lebanon is waiting for the Arab League to put Syria’s return on its agenda to take an official position,” a source close to President Michel Aoun said.

But the efforts to re-engage with Mr Assad still run into strong headwinds at regional and international levels.

Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, Qatar's Foreign Minister, this month reiterated his hopes that countries would be discouraged from taking further steps with the Assad regime.

He was speaking at a joint news conference in Washington with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who voiced no support for rehabilitating the Syrian president.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has so far insisted that progress on a political process to end the conflict is necessary to restore diplomatic ties with Syria or reinstate Damascus to the Arab League.

The European Union has been imposing its own sanctions on the Assad regime since 2011. They include a ban on oil imports, investment restrictions, a freeze on central bank assets held in the EU and sanctions against nearly 300 Syrians including incumbent officials and businessmen.

Updated: November 29th 2021, 12:29 PM