Analysis: How important is Syria’s return to the Arab League?

Many Arab states have accepted that Bashar al-Assad’s government has survived in Syria, and want to return to normal relations.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks as he attends the Arab League Summit in Jeddah
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks as he attends the Arab League Summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on May 18, 2023 [Saudi Press Agency/Handout via Reuters]

Syria’s return to the Arab League, with the attendance of President Bashar al-Assad at Friday’s summit in Saudi Arabia, will mainly be about symbolism. However, it reflects an important shift in how regional actors view the reality of the survival of al-Assad’s government, in ways that are at odds with the West.

More than 11 years after Syria was suspended from the pan-Arab institution in the wake of the brutal crackdown on opposition protesters and the ensuing war in the country, the emerging consensus in Arab capitals today, rightly or wrongly, is that addressing Syria’s problems requires engagement with Damascus.

Understanding Syria’s crisis as an Arab problem, Arab states are determined to pursue Arab strategies for overcoming the toxic and destabilising impacts of this conflict on the region. According to analysts, they hope that by mitigating the conflict, they can begin to reverse the associated drug trafficking networks, refugee crises, weakened border security, and intensified role of Iranian forces and Tehran-backed militias in Syria.

Regaining full-fledged membership in the Arab League marks a major win for Syria’s government, according to Aron Lund, a fellow at Century International and a Middle East analyst.

“Being allowed back shows that Syria is being reintegrated into the region, and that other Arab leaders are confident that Assad is here to stay. So, it is a political victory for the Damascus government,” Lund told Al Jazeera. “In and of itself, it brings very little concrete change. Syria desperately needs aid and investments. The Arab League can’t deliver any of that, but there are Gulf Arab states that can.”

Saudi Arabia as a regional heavyweight

A watershed in Syria’s reintegration into the Arab world’s diplomatic fold came earlier this year when Saudi Arabia began moving towards reconciliation with Damascus.

Both the February 6 earthquakes and the March 10 Saudi-Iranian diplomatic deal accelerated Riyadh’s movement towards renormalisation of relations with al-Assad’s regime. It is fair to conclude that Syria’s return to the Arab League only became feasible after Saudi Arabia changed its position.

Although a few Arab states such as Qatar, Kuwait and Morocco have not renormalised relations with Damascus and still maintain that al-Assad’s government is illegitimate, Riyadh used its influence as a leader in the Arab and Islamic world to persuade them to not obstruct Syria’s return to the Arab League.

The move is a pragmatic one, with Riyadh and other Arab capitals choosing to deal with Damascus based on how they perceive their countries’ national interests.

From many Arab governments’ perspectives, the United States and other Western powers’ current strategy of isolating Syria is unsustainable.

The thinking among many Arab officials is that such policies will only keep Damascus firmly in Iran’s orbit of influence and that the Arab states may as well try bringing Syria back into their fold by engaging al-Assad’s regime.

Syria’s government needs financial support and legitimacy – both of which Damascus believes could, at least eventually, come through a reopening of formal relations with Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Arab nations.

“[Al-]Assad is very pragmatic, and he takes the money from where it comes from,” said Andreas Krieg, an associate professor at the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London, in an interview with Al Jazeera. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s from the Saudis, Iranians or Russians. In this context, the regime will do whatever is in its own interests. We’ve seen them being very confident in the way that they engage other Arab countries, especially Egypt, saying we will do whatever is in the interest of Syria and we’re not making any major concessions.”

In the short term, Arab money will probably not begin immediately flowing into Syria simply because of the al-Assad government’s return to the Arab League.

Western-imposed sanctions on Syria, especially Washington’s Caesar Act, are currently the biggest obstacle to investments being made by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Arab countries.

Experts agree that without Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members being able to invest in Syria it will be difficult to imagine Damascus distancing itself from Iran.

“If investments can’t be made into Syria outside of the narrow scope of humanitarian assistance, and if the sanctions stay in place without any waivers, as it is at the moment, there’s no way that either the UAE or Saudi Arabia will put money into Syria and thereby provide the [al-]Assad regime with any incentive to wean off either the Russians or Iranians,” explained Krieg. “Likewise, why would they stop the Captagon trade if they are now losing a couple of billion dollars every year from that drug trade and that loss can’t be offset by money from the Gulf?”

However, analysts believe that Abu Dhabi and Riyadh see the Caesar sanctions as a temporary obstacle that Washington will either lift or ease – even if not necessarily any time soon, with the Emiratis and Saudis assuming that there will come a point when they can begin putting money into post-conflict Syria and leveraging their networks to gain greater geopolitical clout in the country.

Qatar and Kuwait

Having refrained from renormalising relations with al-Assad’s government, Qatar and Kuwait’s position is that Damascus has not taken any action that would merit any rehabilitation of the Syrian regime.

“Qatar has positioned itself as the Arab World’s most hardline opponent of [al-]Assad’s regime,” Lund told Al Jazeera. “I don’t doubt that it reflects the opinion of many in Doha, but there are also pragmatic and self-interested reasons for this position.”

Qatari officials frame their hardline anti-Assad stance as being on the side of the Arab people, social justice and grassroots movements – as opposed to autocratic Arab regimes. Considering the historical roles that Doha and Kuwait City have played in the Middle East, their positions vis-à-vis al-Assad’s government are easier to understand.

“Qatar and Kuwait have a different history in the region, with their aid going primarily to development projects and institution building rather than regime support,” Nabeel Khoury, a non-resident senior fellow at Gulf International Forum and former US deputy chief of mission in Yemen, told Al Jazeera. “Qatar in particular chooses to remain outside the axes and alliances taking shape, especially where Israel is concerned, [and] is likely … to preserve its role as a mediator in regional conflicts and its pro-Palestinian policies in place.”

However, neither Qatar nor Kuwait obstructed Syria’s return to the Arab League and the two countries did not attend the May 7 meeting.

For Doha, there were concerns about how preventing an Arab consensus on Syria could have undermined Qatar’s relationships with countries in the Gulf and elsewhere in the Arab world. Qatar’s position towards al-Assad’s government enables it to continue with a foreign policy that it deems to be pro-human rights, without excessively upsetting its fellow Arab states on the Syria issue.

Following the al-Ula summit of January 2021, which resolved the 2017-21 Gulf crisis, Doha has avoided antagonising its immediate neighbours on the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt. The Qataris “showed pragmatism” by not obstructing Syria’s return to the Arab League, according to Krieg. “They support Saudi Arabia’s efforts to become, and reposition [Saudi Arabia] as, the leader of the Arab world.”

“[Qatar] signalled its own opposition to the Arab League resolution but did not go beyond that,” explained Lund. “There seems to have been no serious Qatari attempt to stop the resolution, just a series of statements and leaks to the media to highlight Doha’s position.”

Indeed, by not obstructing Syria’s return to the Arab League, Qatar was making a concession to Damascus.

But Qatar has no incentives to make further concessions to al-Assad’s government any time soon and there is good reason to believe that Doha will be the last Arab capital to treat Syria’s government as legitimate.

Source: Al Jazeera