Syria’s return to Arab League leaves opposition dismayed

Residents and members of the country’s political opposition alike are angered by the Arab League’s decision.

People inspect damage at a site hit by what activists said were barrel bombs dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo's district of al-Sukari
Syria has been devastated by 12 years of war, and though many Arab countries initially froze out President Bashar al-Assad for his attacks on the Syrian opposition, his government has now been readmitted to the Arab League [File: Hosam Katan/Reuters]

The decision to allow Syria back into the Arab League has sparked anger among many residents of opposition-held northern Syria and members of the country’s political opposition, who see it as a vindication of the government’s attacks against them during a now 12-year war.

Several Arab League members decided this week to reinstate Syria’s membership, under the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad, after more than a decade of isolation at the organisation’s headquarters in Cairo on Sunday.

“I was very surprised by this decision because I expected our Arab brothers, leaders, and princes to hold Bashar al-Assad accountable for his crimes against the Syrian people over the past 12 years, not to help wash the stains of our blood and body parts of our children and women,” Ghassan al-Yousef, a Syrian dissident from the town of al-Tah in southern Idlib, told Al Jazeera.

Al-Yousef was displaced from his village after government forces took control of it at the end of 2018.

Syria’s Arab League membership was revoked after al-Assad ordered a crackdown on protesters in March 2011 that spiralled the country into a war, which has since killed nearly half a million people and displaced another 23 million.

Some Arab states have pushed to end al-Assad’s isolation and welcomed the decision, while others have opposed full normalisation without a political solution to the Syrian conflict and want there to be conditions for Syria’s return.

Al-Yousef said the decision to readmit the al-Assad government to the Arab League would not change the demands of citizens like him who still support its removal, want it held it accountable for its crimes, and hope it will be replaced by a free, democratic Syria without Russian or Iranian influence.

“From now on, they must look for a new name for the Arab League after Iran succeeded in infiltrating it through its agent, Bashar al-Assad,” he said.

Iran and Russia have been al-Assad’s main backers throughout the war.

The Arab League decided to form a ministerial committee to continue direct dialogue with the Syrian government towards a comprehensive solution to the Syrian crisis and adjacent issues including the refugee crisis, “terrorism”, and drug smuggling.

Drug smuggling, in particular, has become one of the biggest worries for Gulf countries, which are a major market for Captagon pills mainly manufactured in Syria.

Radwan al-Atrash, a political activist and the former head of Idlib’s political authority – a major opposition bloc – said the Arab League had failed the Arab people again.

“The decisions of the Arab League […] have always failed to protect the interests of Arab peoples, especially in Palestine, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and recently Sudan,” al-Atrash told Al Jazeera.

The Arab League’s statement emphasised the need for practical steps towards a gradual solution to the Syrian crisis, in line with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for negotiations on political transition. But al-Atrash isn’t convinced al-Assad and his allies will comply.

“The regime and its supporters, Russia and Iran, are not serious about implementing Resolution 2254 because Bashar al-Assad believes that launching the political process will lead to his demise and the seizure of power from him,” he said.

Many members still object

While there have been several accusations over the year that Syria’s opposition is fragmented, the opposition activists who spoke to Al Jazeera do not see al-Assad’s readmission to the League as a sign that the opposition has failed.

“The Arab League’s decision is not related to the weakness of the opposition but rather a decision that came after the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement,” said Ahmad Husseinat, head of the independent political committee in Idlib governorate, which includes opponents of al-Assad, told Al Jazeera.

Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to restore relations earlier this year, after years of enmity.

“Saudi Arabia shifted from its position of rejecting normalisation with the [al-]Assad regime to being its primary supporter in returning it to the Arab League and restoring relations with it,” Husseinat said.

“We know there are many member states who reject the return of the [al-]Assad regime to the League,” he added.

The Qatari Foreign Ministry stated on Sunday evening that its position on normalisation with the al-Assad government had not changed and that it remained primarily linked to progress on a political solution that achieves the aspirations of the Syrian people.

“We [the opposition] will work to unify our efforts and intensify our communication with Arab countries that have rejected normalisation with the [al-]Assad regime until we achieve our demands for political change and reach a civil and democratic Syria,” said Husseinat.

That message was backed by Mohammed Ghanem, the head of policy at the Syrian American Council.

“Readmitting [al-]Assad into the Arab League sends a blood-soaked message: you can kill, gas, torture, detain, impoverish, and displace millions of people, commit documented atrocities against women and children, destroy schools and places of worship, and still be welcomed back with open arms,” said Ghanem.

He told Al Jazeera the decision also signed off on Iran’s biggest victory in the region, further entrenching Iran and its proxies in the area, without any meaningful concessions from al-Assad.

“Free normalisation is the latest failure on the part of Arab states at thinking and responding strategically to the challenges facing the region,” said Ghanem. “Politics and decision-making in the region continue to be largely driven by the short-sighted and short-term personal agendas of rulers.”

Source: Al Jazeera