Syria conflict still matters to Arab League, despite focus on Gaza war

Syrian crisis has been discussed at meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Manama, before annual summit

Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Secretary General of the Arab League, at a meeting of foreign ministers in Manama.
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Last year, at the Arab League summit in Jeddah, member states brought Syria back into the fold after 12 years of isolation, marking a major turning point in regional relations.

Many viewed it as a political victory for Damascus, which was shunned after a crackdown on protests turned into a civil war. Violence continues to rage in some parts of the country.

“Syria does not want to reopen the doors on the past,” said Bassam Abu Abdullah, professor of international relations at the University of Damascus.

The return of Syria to the Arab League was also part of a larger regional realignment, in which Saudi Arabia thawed relations with Iran last year.

There is slow progress in relations between Syria and the Arab region ... due to each Arab country's own circumstances. But changes are happening gradually behind closed doors
Prof Bassam Abu Abdullah, University of Damascus

“There’s hope in the increasing Arab rapprochement and the launch of a new phase of joint action,” Syrian President Bashar Al Assad said last year, in his first speech at the annual Arab League summit in more than a decade.

The return of Damascus to the regional talks suggested there was a shift in the perception of Arab states towards Mr Al Assad’s position, and a recognition of the need to tackle the regional effects of Syria's civil war. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed in the violence and millions fled.

A statement by Arab states at the end of last year’s summit called on Syria to address pressing issues following its return, including a move towards a sustainable political solution, the return of Syrian refugees and efforts to tackle drug trafficking.

A year later, the 22 Arab countries are to hold the summit in Manama, Bahrain. The event is this time dominated by Israel's war on Gaza. The Syrian conflict is still on the Arab League’s agenda, although to a lesser degree than last year.

Hossam Zakki, assistant secretary general to the Arab League, has said there was “a decision on the crisis in Syria” taken during the foreign ministers’ meeting on Tuesday.

He said it “builds on opening lines of communications between the committee responsible for following up on the crisis in Syria and [ the government] in Damascus”, without giving any further details.

Diplomatic and political changes

Damascus re-established diplomatic ties with Arab states slowly in recent years, but those efforts have increases since it regained full membership of the Arab League.

Mr Al Assad is due to arrive to Manama on Thursday morning, sources close to the government tell The National.

He will not be speak at the summit and will instead focus on discussions relating to “Arab states' relations and the latest developments on the situation in Palestine”, the sources say.

There is “slow progress in relations between Syria and the Arab region”, Mr Abu Abdullah said. This is due to “each Arab country's own circumstances … but changes are happening gradually behind closed doors”.

The re-establishment of relations is taking place to varying degrees within Arab states. “It has been happening at a steady pace with the UAE,” Mr Abu Abdullah added.

Embassies started reopening in the Syrian capital after the country returned to the fold. In January, the first UAE ambassador in nearly 13 years took up his post in Damascus. Days later, Saudi Arabia sent a delegation to Damascus to resume consular services, further reintegrating the country into the Arab diplomatic sphere.

Abdullah Munini, secretary general of the Arab Parties' Conference in Damascus, said the UAE “stood with Damascus in all crises, did not abandon it and continues to provide all forms of support to it”.

The visit of Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs, to Damascus in March last year was a “leap in Syrian-Arab relations and a gateway to the return of these relations to what they were 14 years ago”, Mr Munini added.

Despite differences in Arab positions towards Syria, “great progress was achieved last year [within the relations] that occurred with the opening of the embassies of several Arab countries in Damascus”, he explains.

Political changes inside the country are also taking place, Mr Abu Abdullah added. “President Bashar Al Assad is taking large steps towards internal political changes, not because of Arab demands but due to Syrian needs. There are changes happening within the governing Baath party, and other changes that will happen gradually.”

But despite the progress made in Syria and some regional countries, border controls and drug smuggling remain a source of tension with neighbouring Jordan.

On Tuesday, Jordan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ayman Safadi held talks with Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad in Manama “to stop smuggling operations and deflect their danger”, a Jordanian statement said.

For the past six years, smugglers have tried to bring drugs, and increasingly weapons, across the border from Syria into Jordan.

In February, Jordanian soldiers killed five smugglers who allegedly tried to move drugs across the border, the kingdom's military said at the time.

In the same month, the interior ministers of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq acknowledged in a meeting “that there is a big problem and it is drugs, and all our societies are suffering from this problem”, Jordanian Interior Minister Mazen Al Faraya said after their meeting.

The four countries agreed in the meeting, hosted by Amman, to step up efforts to tackle the issue.

Dangerous escalation

Violence remains rife in parts of Syria, although the country has fallen out of the headlines in recent months due to the war in Gaza. The situation in Syria has been made worse by the regional spillover of the Gaza conflict.

Geir Pedersen, UN special envoy for Syria, last month told the Security Council that the country was becoming “a sort of free-for-all space for settling scores”, emphasising the “dangerous and escalatory spiral” of recent events, including Israeli strikes on Iran's embassy in Damascus and Iran’s retaliatory strikes.

He called for sustained focus on the 13-year conflict in Syria. “Any temptation to ignore or merely contain the Syrian conflict itself would be a mistake. There are no signs of calm in any of Syria’s theatres," Mr Pedersen warned.

Mr Abu Abdullah said “Arab countries need to stick together … it makes every Arab country strong", referring to the Gaza war and the spillover in the region.

Dire humanitarian situation

Humanitarian needs in Syria continue to worsen, driven by escalating tension in the region. February's earthquakes led to further displacement and suffering, the UN said.

In 2024, 16.7 million Syrians are expected to need humanitarian assistance, the largest number since the beginning of the war in 2011, the UN added. It describes the crisis as “dire”, with a “volatile security situation and economic deterioration”.

More than $4.07 billion is required to address the immediate humanitarian needs of 10.8 million vulnerable people, it said.

Millions of Syrians continue to endure displacement, destitution and violence, with no political resolution in sight. Refugees in neighbouring countries are also dealing with increased hostility from their host countries.

“Syria has taken all steps to facilitate the refugees' return,” said Mr Abu Abdullah. ”A Syrian does not need an invitation to come back to his own country.”

After 13 years of war, Syria is also in desperate need of reconstruction, which some Gulf states could help with. But continued US and European sanctions have curbed investment in the country.

“There has been no investment at all from Arab states in Syria,” Mr Abu Abdullah said. “Sanctions have hindered these efforts. Working on the economic needs of the Arab region take precedence over the political issues."

More pressure needs to be put on the US and the West ” to remove the sanctions on Syria that have affected every aspect of life", Mr Munini said.

The rift between the Arab countries and Syria at the beginning of the crisis was unjustified given the “pivotal role that Syria represents in the entire Arab region”, he added.

Updated: May 16, 2024, 10:49 AM