Arab League head meets Blinken as Syria issue looms large

Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Aboul Gheit 'Assad did not merit readmission' to the bloc

From left, Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Antony Blinken at the State Department in Washington on Wednesday. AP
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The Arab League's Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit met US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington on Wednesday for a “strategic dialogue” that comes amid differences over how to deal with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad's regime.

Before the meeting at the State Department, Mr Aboul Gheit said the Arab League was working to “deepen the relationship” with the US, which is looking to enhance its “help and support” in the region.

The first dialogue between Mr Blinken and Mr Aboul Gheit follows an Arab League summit in May, to which Mr Assad was invited after a 12-year absence since the start of the Syrian conflict. The League says years of isolating the regime has done little to resolve any of the country's crises.

But Washington has held its anti-Assad course. Soon after the Arab League summit, President Joe Biden announced the continuation of an executive order that declared a US national emergency with respect to Syria and its actions in “supporting terrorism”, among other issues.

Mr Blinken told Mr Aboul Gheit "that Assad did not merit readmission to the Arab League", a State Department official told The National after the meeting.

The official added discussions touched on "shaping Arab state engagements with the Damascus regime".

That included an emphasis from Mr Blinken that Washington hopes the Arab bloc presses the Assad regime to expand humanitarian access, resume a political process, release detainees and counter Captagon trafficking.

"Working with the Arab League remains an important component of our ongoing diplomacy to address regional conflicts," the official said.

Mr Blinken said dialogue with the League was evidence of the “possibilities and potential for strengthening and deepening collaboration”.

“We deeply value collaboration with the Arab League,” he said.

Arona Baigal, a Middle East security researcher at the Centre for a New American Strategy, said she was paying close attention to how Washington tackles the Syria issue.

“I'd be very intrigued to know how Secretary Blinken will breach these concerns,” she told The National.

"[Questions like], now that you've readmitted Syria, what are the conditions on potentially holding this member accountable?

"How is Syria going to interact with the rest of the members when it comes to several issues, not just security, but also humanitarian?"

Congressional actors in Washington have moved to step up the pressure against normalisation, too, with a bipartisan group in the House of Representatives introducing the Assad Anti Normalisation Act, a pending bill that would codify Washington's opposition to re-establishing relations with the regime.

“This is a showcase that the United States cares about the direction that the Arab League is going with a lot of its decisions,” Ms Baigal added, "be it admitting members, or how they're going about and interacting with the Ukraine-Russia conflict."

Also on Tuesday's agenda will be Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The US is encouraging countries to do more to support Kyiv but the Arab League has treated the issue with caution.

For instance, Riyadh invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to speak at the League's summit in May, while oil-producing Gulf nations have maintained friendly relations with the Kremlin.

Mr Blinken was in Saudi Arabia only last month for a meeting with the GCC, in a bid to sharpen the anti-ISIS mission and broker a ceasefire in Sudan.

All this comes as the US continues to promote the expansion of Israel's integration with its Arab neighbours under the Abraham Accords.

The Biden administration has more recently focused on normalisation between Israel and Saudi Arabia and said there was potential for a new kind of collaboration with the kingdom.

Despite some of its key members establishing relations with Israel, the Arab League continues to uphold the Palestinian cause, with Palestinians maintaining full membership.

Michael McCaul, the Republican chairman of the house foreign affairs committee, said Mr Blinken “should prioritise” Abraham Accord expansion in Tuesday's talks.

“Expanding the Accords helps the United States, helps Muslim-majority countries and helps Israel by facilitating broad co-operation to counter Iran's malign activities,” Mr McCaul told The National. "The US is stronger when our friends work together."

The State Department told The National that Wednesday's talks also covered the Sudan peace process as well as opportunities for further co-operation on other global issues such as cyber security, climate, health and investing in women and girls.

Updated: July 19, 2023, 9:20 PM