Syria’s re-entry into the Arab League is a matter of ‘when’ not 'if'

  • Anchal Vohra
  • 21 Jan 2019

At the recent Arab League summit in Lebanon, the signs of Syria's reinclusion were clear.

Backed by Russian air support and Iran-linked Shia militias, Syria’s Bashar al Assad has survived a brutal civil war, which has killed more than 360,000 people. A man walks past his banner in Douma, outside Damascus on September 17, 2018. ( Marko Djurica / Reuters )

BEIRUT — Syria’s return to the Arab fold, although not officially on the agenda, dominated the Arab League’s social and economic summit held in Lebanon on January 19 and 20.   

In 2011, Syria was suspended from the Arab League after the government brutally quelled what began as peaceful protests demanding political and economic rights. 

As the war is drawing to a close and Bashar al Assad - supported by Russia and Iran - seems set to continue as leader, Arab countries are moving towards patching-up their relationships with Assad. 

Hezbollah and its allies in Lebanon used the timing - in mid-December both the UAE and Bahrain reopened embassies in Damascus - to create just enough noise at the summit to bring the issue of Syria’s inclusion to a head.

Gebran Bassil, the Foreign Minister and a member of the leading Christian party, which is in a political alliance with Hezbollah, said the failure to invite Syria to the summit in Beirut was a “historic shame”. 

Yassine Jaber, a member of parliament from the Shiite Amal party - another Hezbollah ally - told TRT World that the summit should have never been organised without Syria. 

“It should have been hosted once the Arab nations were together on a rapprochement with Syria,” he said. “It is too late now, no one paid heed to our advice.” 

Arab League Secretary-General, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, left, speaks during a joint press conference with Lebanese Prime Minister Gebran Bassil at the end of the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit, in Beirut, Lebanon, Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019.(AP)

Jaber’s party is led by Nabih Berri, the speaker of parliament and an old hand in Lebanese politics. He had, before the summit, called for an invitation to be sent to Syria. 

Ahmed Aboul-Gheit, Secretary-General of the league, said that so far there is no unanimity among the countries to revoke Syria’s suspension. 

"The condition is not ripe yet regarding the return of sisterly Syria to occupy its seat in the Arab League,” he said. “Because there are different points of view.” 

The event in Lebanon was further mired in a controversy over Libya. Amal’s workers burnt a Libyan flag and threatened not to allow the Libyan delegation to pass through the airport if they flew in. The party’s ideologue Musa Sadr went missing in 1978 in Gaddafi-ruled Libya. Since then, Amal has accused Libya of being reluctant to find out what happened to the revered cleric. 

The ruckus created over Libya did not go down well with many Arab countries, who thought it better to not send their leaders. 

The Lebanon summit was lacklustre, attended by only two heads of state - of Mauritiana and Qatar. Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani’s attendance was last minute and brief. Some experts said that the Qatari Emir paid a visit to salvage Lebanon’s reputation while others saw it as a hint that in time, even Qatar may ease relations with Assad-led Syria. So far, Qatar has said that nothing has changed in Syria to seek a revision of diplomatic ties. 

All that the summit in Lebanon achieved was building on the mood to raise the matter of Syria’s return when the 22-member league meets in Tunisia in March. 

However, the chatter of Syria’s readmission started last month.

Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, seen to be close to the Saudis, became the first Arab leader to visit the country during the eight-year war. Soon after his visit, two other Saudi allies, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain - who stood together with Riyadh on the Qatar blockade - reopened their missions in Syria. 

The press also reported the reestablishment of commercial links. Fly Dubai is reportedly pondering flights to the Syrian capital and reentering the Syrian market. DP World, a global port operator in Dubai, is also setting up a 2,500 km-long transport corridor from Jebel Ali Port to the Naseeb-Jaber border crossing between Jordan and Syria, reports said. The corridor will create a smooth flow of goods to Syria through a closer collaboration between customs offices in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Lebanon. 

The renewal of diplomatic relations and talk of commercial ties indicated a thaw between Syria and the Arab world. 

However, it came to an abrupt halt when the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went on a whirlwind tour of the Arab world, according to a Lebanese source close to both Hezbollah and the Assad government who chose to stay anonymous.  

“Pompeo has told the Saudis and the Emiratis and others that wait, we are leaving slowly,” he said, “America has asked them not to rush.” 

Syria’s Bashar Assad meets with Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir in Damascus, Syria on Dec. 16, 2018. Sudan's president has become the first Arab League leader to visit Syria since a war erupted there nearly eight years ago.(AP)

Pompeo has told the Saudis and the Emiratis and others that wait, we are leaving slowly. America has asked them not to rush.

A Lebanese source close to the Assad regime and Hezbollah

The US wants to limit Iran’s expansion in the region but has also made it clear that at some stage the troops deployed in Syria will be withdrawn. It is hard to ascertain exactly how the US envisages to achieve these conflicting goals. 

Assad’s friends believe Pompeo has succeeded merely in delaying the process. The move to initiate Syria’s reinstatement in the league, they said, has begun. 

“The Emirates or Egypt or Bahrain, have they ever done anything without Saudi approval? No. It is clear that there is Saudi backing for bringing Syria back in the Arab fold, it is just a matter of time now,” Amal party’s MP Yassine Jaber told TRT World. 

The anonymous Lebanese source went to the extent of claiming - based on his interactions with highly placed officials in the Syrian government - that the visit of the Sudanese president was the unofficial announcement of a detente between Syria and Saudi Arabia. 

“Bashir told Assad that Saudis are on board and that he must have Syria’s foreign minister raise the question of reinstatement in the Arab league before the summit in Tunisia,” the source said. 

The Syrian government seems to have been peddling a theory of Arab support for some time now. A few months ago, a group of 80 plus Indian businessmen travelled to Damascus on a research trip to explore opportunities in the reconstruction of Syria. India, just like China, has tacitly backed Assad throughout the war. 

In Beirut, on his way back to Mumbai, one of the Indian businessmen told this correspondent that the Syrian officials assured the delegation of Arab investments in the Syrian reconstruction. However, these officials did not disclose the names of the Arab nations purportedly ready to rebuild Syria, the Indian businessman said.  

It is hard to ascertain how much of what Syria and its confidantes are saying is true and how much is propaganda, but it is certain that Assad craves credibility in the Arab world and money to rebuild Syria. 

The World Bank and others have estimated that Syrian reconstruction will cost between $250 to $350 billion. Russia and Iran are simply not in a position to foot the entire bill. 

For its part, the Saudi alliance is worried about containing Iran. The rebel groups it funded have been routed to Idlib and cannot be used as proxies on the ground.

As the American exit - albeit possibly stretched out - seems imminent, there is a thinking that it may be better to counter Iranian influence through a diplomatic presence in Syria and perhaps even by providing financial aid to Assad. 

The anonymous Lebanese source close to the Syrian government also said that Assad prefers the Saudi-led bloc over Qatar and Turkey because the latter countries backed the Muslim Brotherhood, seen as a common threat by Assad, the Saudi monarchy, Egypt’s autocratic President Abdel Fattah el Sisi and the Sheikh of the UAE. 

Rami Khouri, a journalism professor at the American University of Beirut, said: “Syria’s entry into the Arab League is absolutely certain.” 

He said that even if the Assad government is “brutal” it still runs the country and is in a position to “reduce violence, manage refugee flow and provide stability”. 

Business in the Middle East is conducted based on bilateral equations, anyway, Khouri added. 

Even if its return to the league takes time, evidence suggests the Arab world is already softening towards Bashar al Assad, thereby ending the Arab Spring and hopes for change in a part of the world run by monarchs and autocrats.