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The reinstatement of Syria into the Arab League sent shockwaves throughout the Arab world and triggered diverse reactions among Syrians.
After being expelled from the Arab League 12 years ago for his violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has returned to the bloc and expressed optimism that his presence will usher in a new era of peace and prosperity in the region.
On Friday, May 19, Assad attended the 32nd summit of the regional bloc in the port city of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. It was reported by Al Jazeera that his speech conveyed that this was a “historic opportunity” to address crises in the region at a time when hundreds protested against his participation in the event in rebel-held northern Syria.
Despite criticism from his detractors, Assad’s return to the Arab League with regards to the millions of Syrians displaced by the country’s civil war is a significant development in the Middle East. It suggests that his regime’s resilience and force have paid off, allowing him to regain a foothold in the region.
However, Assad’s rule inside Syria remains tenuous, with large swaths of the country’s north still beyond his control. Millions of refugees scattered across neighboring countries are also opposed to his regime, highlighting the challenges that lie ahead. Nonetheless, his return to the Arab League marks a turning point in the region’s politics, and only time will tell whether it will lead to the peace and prosperity he and other leaders envision.
“I hope that it marks the beginning of a new phase of Arab action for solidarity among us, for peace in our region, development and prosperity instead of war and destruction,” Assad told attendees.
This move, which sent shockwaves throughout the Arab world, triggered diverse reactions among Syrians themselves since opinions toward Assad remain divided.
A brief breakdown
The League of Arab States, also known as the Arab League, is a regional organization that represents Arab countries in the Middle East and parts of Africa. It was established on March 22, 1945, in Cairo as a result of the Pan-Arabism movement. The founding member states were Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Transjordan (now Jordan), Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.
The league’s primary objectives in 1945 were to enhance and coordinate the political, cultural, economic, and social initiatives of its members and to mediate any conflicts that may arise between them or with third parties. Over the years, the Arab League has expanded to include more member states and has taken on additional roles, such as promoting human rights, economic cooperation, and regional security. Despite facing various challenges and criticisms, the league remains an important institution in the Arab world and a symbol of pan-Arab unity.
The reinstatement of Syria into the Arab League comes after normalization efforts between the UAE and Saudi Arabia with the Syrian regime.
The United Arab Emirates took the lead in restoring ties with Syria in 2018, with Bahrain and Jordan following suit. Saudi Arabia has only recently shown interest in rapprochement, and the 2023 earthquake in Syria and Turkey may have accelerated normalization efforts with aid flying in from different Arab states. The recent restoration of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran is also seen as a factor.
Overall, the situation in Syria remains complex and challenging, with many competing interests and priorities at play. Knowing this, Arab countries are demonstrating a clear focus on prioritizing the limitation of further destabilization in the region.
What does this mean?
According to experts, this event is significant not only for boosting Syrian-Arab ties but also for restoring Syria’s position in the region. The agreement, however, is not without conditions.
Syria is expected to address the issue of drug trafficking and work towards a political amnesty to help resolve the conflict politically. The symbolic importance of the agreement is clear, but its success will depend on Syria’s ability to follow through on its commitments.
The conditions also encompass the pressing issue of refugees in neighboring Arab countries.
The Syrian conflict has lasted for over twelve years, displacing more than half of Syria’s prewar population and killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. Despite initial support for the Syrian opposition, neighboring Arab governments have come to recognize the reality of Assad’s rule, as his forces, aided by Iran and Russia, have regained control of about two-thirds of Syria.
Many Syrians have fled to neighboring countries, such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, where they face rising anti-refugee sentiments. Host governments are working to ensure a return mechanism though in varying degrees and capacities. They are also calling on Assad to curb the illicit flow of captagon, a highly addictive amphetamine that has allegedly generated over $50 billion in revenue during the conflict.
The US position
As for the Biden administration and its European allies, they chose to continue their policy of isolation and pressure directed at Assad.
Nonetheless, the difference in attitudes toward Syria between Washington and key partners, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates, reflect the shifting dynamics between the US and the Middle East, as Arab leaders accuse the US of neglecting the region in favor of competing with China and Russia, according to the Washington Post.
However, official sources told the Washington Post that this did not signify the rise and fall of US influence. Instead, “it means different countries, including partners of ours, have evaluated the situation and they’ve decided to take a different approach to get after the problems. That happens in every administration, around the globe, on a variety of issues.”
Not all Middle Eastern countries, however, support Syria’s integration into their political sphere. Qatar, a longtime supporter of the Syrian opposition and rebel groups, is not among the countries that are ready to welcome Syria back. According to Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, “We had reasons to support the suspension of Syria’s membership in the Arab League, and those reasons still exist.”
Qatar, however, has affirmed that it will not obstruct any move backed by regional powers.
As for the reactions of Syrians, they are naturally mixed.
According to Samir Nashar, a member of the Syrian National Council who is currently based in Istanbul, the decision to readmit Syria to the Arab League was not unexpected.
The expectation, however, that the Assad regime will meet its conditions from the Arab states may not materialize, Nashar argues.
“The regime may contend that they need funds for infrastructure before they can return all the refugees since the infrastructure in the country has been seriously damaged. So they may tie funds to implement their promises,” he said.
As for the desire of the Gulf countries to see Iran play a diminished role in the region as a whole and in Syria specifically, the expert noted that “there will be a regional war before Iran leaves Syria completely alone.”
The first state visit to Syria by an Iranian president since the start of the civil war in 2011 was made by Ebrahim Raisi on 3 May. Largely seen by experts as Tehran’s step to increase its political and economic sway over the Assad regime, the two-day visit was touted as a sign of its “strategic victory” in regional affairs.
“We must wait and see how the American reaction to normalization develops since they are intensely opposed to it but still wish to maintain ties with their Arab allies,” Nashar stated. The State Department has declared that despite several of Washington’s Arab friends re-establishing ties with Damascus, the United States would not normalize relations with the Assad.
The expert does not anticipate any significant changes on the social or economic level in Syria – which has suffered immensely due to the decade long war, with increased food and livelihoods insecurity and extreme inflation.
“As long as the Syrian regime does not gain the trust of Arab states, I do not anticipate investments returning to the country immediately,” he said.
A beacon of hope and a disappointing move
For Ali*, a 45-year-old father of two residing in Syria and wishing to remain anonymous, the reinstatement is a great achievement and offers hope.
“Maybe Arab countries will be better-positioned to provide assistance to Syria in the form of funds or other services now, so that it no longer feels alienated,” Ali told Fanack.
Upon the recovery of the economy and the improvement in living conditions in the country, more and more people will be inclined to return home, he added.
“We must wait and see as these things take time,” he noted, adding that it was a positive step towards the future, demonstrating the strength of unity and perhaps the beginning of a restoration and healing in Syria.”
For Syrian-Lebanese columnist Alia Mansour, who is currently residing in Lebanon, the whole ordeal is disappointing and does not indicate the possibility of a prosperous Syria in the future.
“Currently, no one is likely to provide financial support for the government, and any changes we might observe will be minor. For example, the drug trade may stop being transferred to Saudi Arabia, but it will still be possible to do it via other routes,” Mansour told Fanack.
While reactions remain mixed, and many questions remain unanswered, what is clear is that the region is undergoing changes that start with Syria but do not end there. Is Syria part of a greater package that entails greater normalizations on several other fronts and files? Only the coming weeks will provide insight.