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Several recent efforts have been made to ensure Al-Assad’s return to the Arab League. However, some obstacles are preventing this return.
Amidst the region’s rapidly changing political landscape, the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, is seeking to break his international and regional isolation by normalising relations with Arab countries. However, rejoining the Arab League does not seem to be an easy matter.
Despite the absence of talks on the rehabilitation of the Syrian regime and planning for Syria‘s future, the foreign ministries of countries that boycotted al-Assad’s regime after the Syrian revolution – especially Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia – are discussing the normalisation of relations with Damascus.
While al-Assad’s return to the Arab League could potentially signal the end of the era of estrangement, it could also strain his relationship with Russia and Iran.
Faisal Mekdad, the Syrian foreign minister, recently made his first official visit to Cairo since the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011. During the visit, Egypt and Syria agreed to strengthen their cooperation.
Additionally, the recent visit of Sameh Shoukry, the Egyptian foreign minister, to Damascus signalled further improvements in the relations between Arab countries and the al-Assad regime. An Egyptian source revealed that Shoukry’s visit aimed to pave the way for Syria’s return to the Arab League through Egyptian-Saudi mediation.
Al-Assad highlighted the significance of the visit in improving Arab relations beyond merely the Egyptian-Syrian relationship, stating that “strengthening bilateral relations between Arab countries is essential for improving the overall situation in the Arab world.”
Following the 2023 earthquake that struck Syria and Turkey, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called his Syrian counterpart, marking the first contact between the two leaders since Sisi took office in 2014.
During the Syrian conflict, many Arab countries broke diplomatic ties with Syria and closed their embassies in Damascus. Egypt, however, did not take this step and kept its embassy open. In 2016, the Syrian intelligence chief, Ali Mamlouk, visited Cairo, his first official foreign visit since the start of the war. Egypt did reduce the level of its diplomatic representation in Damascus.
Sisi’s invitation for al-Assad to visit Cairo signals the beginning of the Syrian president’s return to the Arab arena. There has been speculation that al-Assad may participate in the upcoming May 2023 Arab Summit in Saudi Arabia.
While al-Assad’s recent visit to the UAE has made the invitation more likely, Cairo has taken a cautious approach, stating that “anything is possible in diplomacy.”
No Arab Consensus
Saudi Arabia reportedly intends to invite al-Assad to the upcoming Arab Summit, denoting a significant step towards ending the Syrian regime’s regional isolation.
This development follows the announcement of the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, regarding the need for dialogue with Damascus, citing an increasing Arab consensus that isolating Syria is “futile and unsustainable.”
Concurrently, Emirati media have reported increased popular support for Syria’s return to the Arab League.
Speaking to Fanack, an anonymous source at the Arab League believes there needs to be an “official Arab consensus” before Syria can return to its seat. The Arab League unanimously suspended the Syrian regime after the outbreak of the Syrian crisis.
The source added, “While public opinion regarding Syria’s return is positive, it has not yet translated into a clear plan of action.” The possibility of al-Assad visiting the Arab League headquarters in Cairo will not be considered until the issue of Syria’s membership status is resolved.
Acknowledging that some parties may not be enthusiastic, the source suggested that lifting Syria’s suspension from the Arab League would be the optimal method to address the problems resulting from the suspension.
However, the source emphasised that this process “is not easy, as it involves many challenges.” Speaking to Fanack, they stated that “the Syrians aim to rebuild their country relying on Gulf funds. The rebuilding process is closely tied to the Syrian regime’s survival, as its current situation is precarious.”
According to the source, lifting sanctions is the next issue that needs to be addressed in Syria’s potential return to the Arab League. Whether or not the Arab countries will take a united stance and if their stance will break under Western and American pressure remains to be seen.
Syria’s close ties with Iran and Russia have put Arab countries at odds with these pressures at a time when many sensitive regional developments and newly formed alliances affect American and Western interests in the Middle East.
The Algerian Attempt
The current efforts to reintegrate Syria into the Arab League are not new. The Algerian president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, attempted to host Bashar al-Assad at the previous Arab Summit in Algeria. However, his attempts were rejected by Gulf nations, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Tebboune had hoped to seize the opportunity to reintegrate Syria into the Arab League, but the Summit’s final statement revealed a lack of consensus on the issue. The statement only emphasised the importance of “joint Arab efforts to reach a political solution in Syria.”
Al-Assad’s potential presence at the upcoming Arab Summit signifies the most critical development in efforts to end his isolation since 2011. Moreover, it symbolises a regional shift regarding the Syrian matter.
Meanwhile, as it seeks to curb the Russian influence in various parts of the world, the US relies on its regional allies to undermine Russia’s clout in Damascus or at least neutralise its weight over the US’ regional interests.
In contrast, Russia, al-Assad’s primary ally, is taking advantage of the gap the US has left in the region to help al-Assad improve his relationship with Turkey. After a series of unofficial consultations, the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, is preparing to meet with his counterparts in Russia, Iran and Syria in May 2023.
As is known, Turkey consistently supported the political and armed opposition against al-Assad throughout the Syrian crisis and deployed its forces in vast areas of northern Syria.
Al-Assad considers himself victorious in the Syrian conflict and acts accordingly by attempting to impose his conditions on Turkey. He wants Turkey to withdraw all its military units from Syrian soil, cede all support to armed organisations, assist in counterterrorism efforts and end its interference in Syria’s internal affairs.
Mikhail Bogdanov, the Russian special presidential representative for the Middle East and Africa, has suggested that the path to normalising relations between Syria and Turkey will be long and arduous. He noted that “not all issues can be resolved in one or more rounds of negotiations.”
Despite opposition from the United States and Qatar, certain Arab countries, including Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, appear to be moving towards normalising relations with the Syrian government. A shift that is taking place despite concerns over “the Syrian regime’s brutality during the conflict and the need for a political solution in Syria.”
Some analysts suggest that al-Assad sees the broad solidarity with Syria following the recent earthquake as an opportunity to accelerate the normalisation with his neighbours, in particular since Iran has resumed diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia following a seven-year rift.
While the support for the Syrian opposition declines as a result of this relative improvement, Çavuşoğlu doubts whether al-Assad’s regime is waiting to see the results of the upcoming elections in Turkey. In this regard, he says, “Having meetings with the al-Assad regime or its ministers does not benefit the Justice and Development Party in the elections. It may even cause harm.”
Exploiting the Earthquake
The Syrian regime has effectively used the recent earthquake and its resulting humanitarian crisis to break its isolation. However, not all countries are willing to normalise with the Syrian regime. As a result, the sanctions imposed on al-Assad and his international isolation may not be lifted at all.
Despite statements by US officials expressing their opposition to normalisation with the Syrian regime, it seems America’s allies are unfazed by these objections. Over the past three years, the Biden administration has failed to prevent Damascus from coming out of isolation.
Efforts to break Syria’s isolation are not new. This time, however, the efforts are consolidating authoritarian rule in the region. Ryan Bohl, a Middle East and North Africa affairs analyst, believes that al-Assad’s prevailing rule throughout the last decade made him “a model for when facing the next inevitable public rebellion.”
Bohl warns that “other undemocratic regimes and actors in the Middle East and North Africa risk seeing al-Assad’s success as proof that force is a very valid option to quell threats to their control.”
The official Arab disposition is to keep taking advantage of the US’s declining presence in the region to build non-traditional alliances with China, Russia, Iran and Turkey. The Syrian regime capitalises on this situation, prioritising its survival in power over any real vision for the future of the Syrian people.