Syria’s Return to the Arab League: Regional Political Shifts and their Implications for the Syrian Crisis
- updated: May 31, 2023
When things started to unravel in Syria in 2011, the Arab states, particularly the Gulf States, cautiously monitored how things were evolving and then took the side of the opposition wanting to topple Bashar Assad’s regime. Not only did the Gulf states suspend Syria’s membership in the Arab League and sever relations with Bashar Assad, but they seized the opportunity of escalating developments to intervene militarily to serve their political and strategic interests in the region. Those states started to support several armed opposition factions in addition to supporting the political opposition and building up political and diplomatic pressure to change the Syrian regime. This position was based on two main propositions: the Syrian regime was employing sectarian violence and was closely allied with Iran which constituted a threat to the stability of Gulf states. Hence, those states found the Syrian crisis a ripe chance to undermine Iran’s power by trying to overthrow Assad.
After the military ‘victory’ which the Syrian regime achieved with Iranian and Russian support in 2018, the Arab states were divided into those who accepted the status quo and reconciled with Bashar Assad and those who continued to mount political and diplomatic pressure to realize regime change. The UAE and Bahrain restored relation with Bashar Assad while Saudi Arabia maintained its firm position. Recently, indications started to show some change in the Saudi position with preliminary steps towards restoring Saudi-Syrian relations. Qatar, Kuwait, Morocco and Yemen continue to reject such restoration for various reasons including that Damascus has not taken any steps that would call for the rehabilitation of the Syrian regime. Nonetheless, they did not block its return to the Arab League.
After twelve years of bloody war in Syria which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions and divided Syrian territory among disputing powers and despite accusations against Bashar Assad of committing war crimes, the states of the Arab League led by Saudi Arabia have decided Syria would restore its membership in the Arab League. In the third item of its final communique, the Arab League welcomed Syria’s return after years of isolation and expressed its hope that this decision would contribute to Syria’s ‘stability and unity’.
Syria’s return to the Arab League reflects a shift in regional actors’ view of Bashar Assad’s government’s persistence in power which often contradicts the Western view of the matter. Many Arab states have come to conclude that addressing Syria’s problems necessitates dealing with Damascus. They are hoping that by mitigating the conflict, they could start rolling back associated problems such as drug smuggling networks, refugee crisis, weakened border security and the significant role of Iranian troops and Iranian-backed militias in Syria.
On the other hand, Syria’s restoration of full membership in the Arab League constitutes an important, though only symbolic, ‘victory’ for the Syrian regime. It indicates Syria’s reintegration into the region and promotes the regime’s legitimacy. Nonetheless, this reintegration does not create big tangible change. Syria is in dire need for the aid and investments which the Arab states cannot offer due to Western sanctions imposed on Syria especially the Caesar law. Nonetheless, these sanctions are regarded as transient and it is thought that the US will lift or mitigate them allowing these states especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE to invest in Syria and promote their geopolitical influence in the country.
There are several factors which could explain the shift in Saudi policy. Most prominent would be the strong Saudi wish to promote its image as the most influential and important Arab state. In addition, Saudi Arabia is seeking to diversify its economy and achieve prosperity which would require regional security and stability and standing up to the Iranian intervention and ‘the chaos incurred by the Arab Spring revolutions’. Hence, Saudi Arabia has decided to confront Iran by other means. This started on 10 March 2023 when it was declared that the Chinese mediation to restore relations between the two countries had succeeded. Normalization with the Syrian regime came within the same context.
However, restoring relations with Syria is not a goal per se. For the restoration of relations by itself would not serve the Saudi and Arab goals of stabilization. This was reiterated in the final communique of the Arab League and the ministerial decision no. 9481 issued in Cairo on 7 May which puts dealing with Syria within the framework of international resolutions particularly UNSC resolution 2254 stressing that the return of a crisis-stricken Syria to the Arab League is a big step of a gradual process expecting the Syrian regime to make the following step.
The Arab states are requiring the Assad regime to fulfil several requirements which are considered clear prerequisites for the normalization process to proceed. These include controlling Syrian borders, preventing the infiltration of terrorist groups and criminal organizations including drug trade particularly the now well-known Syrian-made Captagon which is yielding enormous profits for producers. Reports indicate that the Assad regime is implicated in these activities despite its denial.
Further, Arab states require Damascus to allow aid to flow freely to all those in need in Syria regardless of the area where they live be it under regime control or otherwise. This demand aims to improve the circumstances of Syrians inside the country and is considered an important requirement for the fulfilment of another demand which is the safe return of Syrian refugees to their homeland.
In addition to that, the political settlement requires initiating a permanent settlement of the Syrian crisis through negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition, drafting a new constitution and holding elections to rebuild the regime in Syria in accordance with resolution 2254. As for foreign troops, the withdrawal of Iranian troops and then of Turkish troops is important for Arab states.
Although the above demands are hard, they have been negotiated as requirements for normalization. On the other hand, Bashar Assad is seeking to serve clear goals by receiving Arab economic support to rebuild Syria and meet the basic needs of Syrian men and women who are suffering under dire conditions. He realizes that consolidating his power requires addressing acute economic problems and meeting the basic humanitarian needs. He also seeks to receive direct support for his legitimacy and would demand the Arab states to pressure Western states to suspend the imposed sanctions.
Nonetheless, the question remains whether the Syrian regime would be capable of realizing a solution in light of the conflicting interests of various parties as different states, such as Turkey, Iran, Russia and the USA, have big interests and influence in Syria so much that they all but occupy its territories. Therefore, dealing with these complex considerations requires reaching a permanent and comprehensive solution for the crisis in Syria.
Hence, in the Syrian Women’s Political Movement, we hope that the Arab League and its states would play an active role in solving the Syrian crisis in accordance with UNSC resolution 2254 to meet the aspirations of the Syrian people under UN auspices. We believe it is essential to link any efforts for normalization with the Syrian regime to the realization of justice and holding those responsible for war crimes to account.
Nonetheless, we believe the Arab leaders must be cautious in their normalization approach as a handshake with Assad is considered a justification for his crimes. Crimes against humanity are not a matter of ‘viewpoint’ which could change according to interests. Nor should it be forgotten that Syrian refugees were forcibly displaced due to oppression, detention and bombardment and their return would incur many risks including detention, torture, and execution. Assad would not be able to realize stability in Syria under the persistent economic and administrative corruption. Assad regime has transformed Syria into a major drug state in which it is implicated and which it is unable to control.
In the same context, normalization has some potential implications for Syrian women as normalization without reforming human rights in Syria and without accountability for human right violations would lead to the continuation of violations of women rights and violence against them. Women may be exposed to arbitrary arrest, torture, forced disappearance, sexual harassment and even sexual violence in the context of conflict. Instilling impunity would adversely reflect on women’s rights and security.
Arab normalization with the Syrian regime may affect Syrian women IDPs and refugees in Arab states as it may make their position even more precarious and exacerbate existing marginalization and discrimination against them. Normalization without seeking to build democracy and human rights in Syria would weaken women’s participation in the political and decision-making processes. In addition, women would find it challenging to assume leading positions and take part in making decisions related to their future and their society.
In SWPM, we hope the regional consensus on Syria would serve addressing the root causes of the crisis and reiterating that there is not future for Syria with any form of authoritarian rule.
The Political Committee of the Syrian Women’s Political Movement