Aboul Gheit: Bringing Syria back into Arab League a 'step' towards normalisation

Exclusive: Group's Secretary General tells The National that a 'positive return' to the fold for Damascus rests on the willingness of the country's government to move in the right direction

Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Secretary General of the Arab League. Victor Besa / The National
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The Secretary General of the Arab League has emphasised the organisation’s commitment to a political track in Syria.

Speaking to The National during a working visit to Abu Dhabi, Ahmed Aboul Gheit said that readmitting the country to the group “does not put us in competition with anyone”, in reference to the UN’s efforts to implement Security Council resolutions.

The readmission of Syria into the league was a “step in a process” of normalising ties and “not the end of the journey”, he said.

Arab officials have said that Syria’s return to the Arab League does not mean all issues are resolved, a position emphasised by Mr Aboul Gheit.

“A positive return of Syria rests on a number of factors,” he said.

“Firstly, the strength of the welcome to Syria’s return, and on the extent of which the Syrian government is ready to move in the [right] direction towards Arab countries, and in tackling the pressing problems within Syria itself.”

Mr Aboul Gheit said two important meetings preceded the move to invite Syria back into the fold, one in Jeddah and the other in Amman.

In the meeting in Amman at the beginning of this month, Mr Aboul Gheit said Arab ministers discussed a number of priorities with Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad.

While he would not lay out specific conditions for Syria, Mr Aboul Gheit said that a number of specific areas were discussed, including “the issues of drugs, the internally displaced and refugees, the general political situation and how Syria will act on all these issues”.

Based on these discussions, a committee was established with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and the Arab League, Mr Aboul Gheit said.

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad yesterday received an invitation from Saudi Arabia to attend the Arab League summit in Jeddah.

Mr Aboul Gheit said that the invitation to the Arab League meeting was “a first step towards normalisation”.

There is not yet a consensus among Arab countries about Syria, but Mr Aboul Gheit said “even the countries that have some reservations do not intend on being an obstacle”.

As for the millions of Syrians internally displaced by the country’s civil war or seeking refuge abroad, Mr Aboul Gheit said: “Much will depend on an internal breakthrough in Syria ... and the reconstruction of cities and what was destroyed by the civil war."

“This will take time, and the Syrian government must have good intentions,” he said.

Mr Aboul Gheit said the UN Security Council resolution passed in 2015 to seek a political transition remains important.

“Resolution 2254 represents an international and UN process that is of high significance and should not be abandoned,” he said.

“Some of the Europeans said the UN is the only body responsible for the implementation of this resolution; that is inaccurate,” he added.

Mr Aboul Gheit said rejected what he called “largely western” objections to the Arab League’s engagement with Syria.

“We are seeking to consult with Syria and encouraging it to expedite implementing the resolution as soon as possible," he said.

He voiced frustration at those seeking to keep Syria out of the Arab League.

“I do not understand why only Iran, Turkey, Russia, the western countries and the UN are involved and not the regional organisation,” he said.

“Turkish interference should be stopped ... and the Arab League calls on it to change its positions in the region.”

On Iran’s role in Syria, he said: “This is a bilateral matter between the two countries, given it is a regional power."

“We have reservations about Iran’s actions on a regional level. Its effects are often negative due to its traditional role and its position towards the West.”

That negative role may change with the agreement Saudi Arabia and Iran reached in March to resume diplomatic ties.

“I hope that the results and repercussions [of the deal] will be agreed upon when things move forward, particularly in Yemen," he said.

“When things move in Yemen, then the Iranian fist begins to loosen in its interventions in the Arab region. Then it will seem that Iran has changed its approach ... but it will take time.”

The Saudi Arabia-Iran deal was sealed at a meeting in Beijing that has raised questions about intensified Chinese-American competition in the region.

“Certainly, there is a heightened Chinese relationship with the countries of the region, and through the Belt and Road Initiative, but the US will not give up on this region,” Mr Aboul Gheit said.

In a sign of increased US interest, Mr Aboul Gheit revealed the Arab League has received an invitation from Washington for a “strategic dialogue”.

“I, personally, with a delegation from the Arab League summit, have been invited to Washington for a strategic dialogue between the Arab League and the US, revealing the continued American interest in maintaining the vitality of the American role in the region,” he said.

On the recent development in Sudan, Mr Aboul Gheit said there was an intention to convene a committee that includes representatives from the Arab League to discuss efforts to agree on a ceasefire.

Clashes over several days killed at least 25 people in the south, the Sudan Doctors' Union said on Wednesday. Meanwhile, representatives of Sudan’s army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces are currently holding talks in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah.

Mr Aboul Gheit said his organisation’s position on Sudan was "to preserve the Sudanese official institutions, that is the armed forces, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the government and its various ministries", as set out in the latest resolution on Sunday.

The Arab League rejected any efforts to “internationalise” the Sudanese conflict, he said. Ideas such as having peace-keeping forces in the country “should only happen at the request of the Sudanese state”, he added.

Palestine and its continued occupation remain a topic of concern for the Arab League.

Mr Aboul Gheit said discussions with the Israeli government remained fruitless, and that his organisation followed recent developments with “sorrow and great sadness”.

When asked about the possibility of brokering peace between Palestine and Israel, Mr Aboul Gheit said: “With such an extreme right-wing government [in Israel] and violence?”

He did, however, stress the role western countries could play in pressuring Israel to ease the suffering of Palestinians.

Updated: May 11, 2023, 5:14 AM