Syria returning to the Arab fold! Is it credible?

QAMISHLI, Syria (North Press) – There has been much talk recently about the possibility of Syria regaining its suspended seat in the Arab League, in the event of an Arab consensus, but the question is: What is the credibility of this readmit and what are its conditions?

In November 2011, the Arab League revoked Syria’s membership, due to a dispute with the Syrian government over the ongoing war in Syria, and called for the withdrawal of Arab ambassadors from Damascus, until the Syrian government fulfills its full commitments to provide protection for civilians.

Despite the League’s decision to freeze its membership, Damascus was not completely isolated politically and economically, as most of the Arab countries in North Africa, Iraq, the Sultanate of Oman and other countries, including Egypt, remained neutral in the internal conflict, while channels of communication with the Syrian government continued.

Attempts to break the isolation came from Russia, Assad’s main backer, as efforts coupled with the desire of the capitals of Arab countries to contain Damascus in an attempt of squeezing Iran out of Syria, or at least minimizing its role there.

Attitudes towards Damascus’ readmit

The positions of the Arab capitals regarding reinstating Syria’s membership in the League varied between supporters, opponents and silent, as it is linked to consultations among Arab countries, and soon normalization between the Arab world and Bashar Assad became the hottest thing in regional politics.

First, there was the Emirati Embassy in Damascus that reopened in 2018, then a few high-profile Arab delegations met with Syrian diplomats and politicians abroad, and in 2020, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed called the Syrian president, for the first time, and stressed the need for his country to stand by Damascus in its ordeal.

Everyone, from Jordan’s King Abdullah II to Egyptian and Saudi officials, was busy crafting a new path on Syria in order to bring it back into the Arab fold.

Algeria is one of the most prominent countries supporting the return of Damascus to the Arab League.

Since March 2019, Egypt has not opposed this return, and its foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, said: “Egypt does not have any conditions for the return of Syria.”

For years, Baghdad has supported Syria’s return to its seat in the Arab League. Beirut, too, was a supporter of Damascus’ return to the Arab League, and it was also opposed to freezing its membership. 

Manama stressed, on more than one occasion, that the decision to return Syria to the League must be taken in the League at the highest level.

Nouakchott appointed its ambassador to Damascus in 2020, without expressing a clear position on the return of Damascus to the Arab League.

Muscat was one of the first Arab and Gulf countries to accelerate normalization with Assad, as it returned its ambassador to Damascus on October 4, 2020.

On the other hand, Riyadh is not considering to deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the present time, according to what Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud said on November 11.

This month, Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani expressed his hope that other countries would be reluctant to take further steps toward rapprochement with Assad.

On March 2021, the Qatari minister announced that the reasons for freezing Syria’s membership in the Arab League still exist.

Al Thani stressed at the time, “Syria’s territorial integrity, and rejecting a military solution to the crisis.”

So far, the countries of Morocco, Libya, Sudan, Djibouti, Yemen, Comoros, Kuwait, Palestine and Somalia have not announced a clear position on the Syrian regime or its return to the League.

But in Tunisia, there is a great movement to restore relations with Damascus. In August 2021, the Tunisian General Labor Union (the largest trade union organization) urged President Kais Saied to restore diplomatic relations with Damascus, but without a clear official response.

What are the grounds for normalization?  

Some states that normalized relations with Syria or those intend to do, hope that promoting Arab presence can limit Iran influence in Syria, prevent more regional and international intervention into the Syrian affair. Such a hope can only be achieved through economic relations.

The UAE and Syria discussed developing economic relations and expanding the horizon of fruitful and promising partnership between both countries. 

The Syrian-Emirati Business Council and the UAE ‘Umm al-Quwain Chamber of Commerce and Industry signed an agreement to activate cooperation and support trade exchange and economic relations between the business communities in the two countries.   

UAE Ministry of Economic said Abu Dhabi was Syria’s most prominent global trade partner, the first in the Arab world and the third globally, with a 14% share in Syria’s foreign trade.

The value of non-oil trade between both countries was 1 billion dirhams ($272 million) in the first half of 2021, and 2,6 billion dirhams in 2020.

Abdulla bin Touq al-Marri, UAE Minister of Economy, stated the value of Syrian direct investment in the UAE surpassed 1,5 billion dirham ($408 million) by the end of 2019.  

The Syrian Ministry of Economy and Foreign Trade stressed intentions to broaden economic relations with the UAE in the fields of common interest.

Similarly, Damascus approved the pass of the Egyptian gas and Jordanian power to Lebanon through Syrian lands with the aim to generate energy.

The border crossings between Syria and Jordan reopened to allow the resumption of trade and commerce between the two neighboring countries. The Jordanian capital Amman was the one pushed to sign the agreement to allow the pass of Egyptian and Jordanian gas and electricity to Lebanon through Syria.

The Syrian government is expected to get some portion of gas and electricity by permitting Egyptian gas and Jordanian power to pass through its lands with US bless. 

In turn, the US National Security Council for the Middle East Bret McGurk said on November 21 that he does not see any real normalization with the Syrian government.

“Syria will not return to the Arab League,” he added.

He even denied the possibility of the return to international openness to Syria in light of the continuation of the current government.   

Observers calculate that normalizing relations with Syria by the Arab countries and its reinstatement in the Arab League is because the Arab countries attempt to support Syria economically with the aim to reduce Iran’s influence in Syria. 

A goal can only be achieved through economic normalization. 

But Damascus spreads a propaganda that Syria is an important element in the region, according to a statement by Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates Faisal Mekdad. 

The Arab countries would like, without restrictions, to take over the file of reconstruction of Syria and building economic relations benefiting the Gulf States, particularly the rich ones, and other Arab countries such as Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon by the return of exchange trade with Syria. 

The deteriorating economic conditions of Syria, the fall down of the Syrian pound against the USD and Caesar Act all have increased blunder of the Syrian government.