Engaging Syria divisive at Arab League even after a decade of war

Ten years after Damascus was ejected from the Arab League over the war, regional countries are deeply divided on whether to open diplomatic dialogue

epa09048849 Arab foreign ministers holding the 155th ordinary session at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, 03 March 2021.  EPA/KHALED ELFIQI

Nearly a decade after Syria was suspended from the Arab League over the regime’s brutal crackdown on protesters, the region remains deeply divided on whether to actively engage with Damascus or continue a policy of isolation.

In recent years, several countries lobbied to reinstate Syria, opening up a channel through which regional states can engage Damascus on reform and the peace process. Others, however, fear this will be seen as a reward for the regime clinging to power at any cost in a conflict that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced  millions.

On the eve of the body's 76th anniversary, one senior official at the Arab League told The National that the matter was still highly contentious.

“Commenting on readmitting Syria into the Arab League, if it’s the stance of any member state, is a sensitive issue as member states apparently do not share identical viewpoints on the issue, which means in that case, that we do have differences,” Arab League spokesman, ambassador Hossam Zaki, said.

He declined to elaborate on either discussions on the matter or what readmission for Syria, one of the founding members in 1945, would entail.

Several regional foreign ministry officials declined to comment at all on the matter, citing the sensitivity of discussing Syria’s readmission.

Syrian war, in pictures 

After trying to get traction on mediation initiatives, the Arab League suspended Syria in November 2011 – just months after the Assad regime started to respond to peaceful demonstration with force.

The motion carried with Lebanon and Yemen voting against the decision and Iraq abstaining.

Years later, the Syrian peace process – through the UN in Geneva and through Russia and Turkey in Sochi – has yielded no progress.

Without the Arab League, there is no regional track for diplomacy.

For this reason, in recent years several countries joined the camp in favour of readmission.

"Our stance is the same, we are with the readmission of Syria to the Arab League," Ahmed Al Sahaf, spokesman for the Iraqi Foreign Ministry, told The National.

A source close to Lebanon's president said Michel Aoun had been clear in supporting Syria's return to the Arab fold but agreed: "It is an issue to be decided on the Arab League level."

The UAE recently joined the calls for readmission.

This week, UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed called for Syria to be readmitted to the pan-Arab body to ensure a regional effort in attempting to mediate an end to the bloody civil war.

“Syria’s return to the Arab fold is essential and has nothing to do with who wants or who does not want it, it is a matter of public interest and the interests of Syria and the region,” he said on Tuesday during a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov.

For years after the 2011 suspension, the Arab League’s 22 members would regularly call for Mr Assad to step down.

But his resignation is not seen as an option for the close circle around him in Damascus and his position was solidified by the military, financial and political backing of Russia and Iran.

In the tumult of the war, Turkey has largely co-opted all that remains of Syria's opposition – even sending fighters to Libya and Azerbaijan – while at the same time trying to mediate with Russia on the future of Syria.

In Doha after talks with his Russian and Turkish counterparts on Thursday, Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman said the reasons for Syria's suspension from the Arab League remain.

But, he said, the three countries are making a joint attempt to promote a political solution to Syria's 10-year conflict.

Jordan, a key US ally, a direct neighbour of Syria and host to about a million refugees, also opposes readmitting Syria in the current circumstances and has laid down a set of conditions to normalise ties with Mr Assad.

After meetings in Berlin with German officials on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Ayman Al Safadi said any deal would need to result in “withdrawal of all foreign forces from Syria, allow the voluntary return of refugees and ending terrorism”.

A western diplomat familiar with Jordanian-US discussions on Syria said Jordan is opposed to readmitting the regime to the Arab League without certain conditions but that Moscow was lobbying a change of heart.

“The Russians are resuming their pressure on Jordan and other Arab countries to accommodate Assad,” the diplomat said.

One barrier to any dealings with the Assad regime, Sheikh Abdullah said on Tuesday, was US Caesar sanctions levelled at Damascus for human rights abuses.

A State Department official said the US sees the blame for the Syrian situation as laying with Mr Assad alone, not its sanctions.

"The extremely dire humanitarian crisis in Syria is a direct result of the Assad regime blocking of life-saving assistance, systemic corruption, and economic mismanagement," the official told The National.

They said it is “imperative for the regime and its supporters to engage seriously in political dialogue and allow humanitarian assistance to reach communities in need in order to achieve a sustainable end to the Syrian people’s suffering.”

Syria has been for ever changed by a decade of war but Mohanad Hage Ali, a fellow at the Malcolm H Kerr Carnegie Middle East Centre, does not feel the 76-year-old organisation would be fit to press for change with or without Syria's inclusion.

“The Arab League has been absent from the majority of conflicts across the region. Its incognisance and decay are unrelated to the ejection of the Assad regime,” he said.

"The Arab League today is too weak and insignificant to play a role, even if the regime hadn't been ejected." – Additional reporting by Mariam Nihal in Riyadh and Elias Sakr in Beirut

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