3 February 2019

The Arab League Mulls Whether to Readmit al Assad's Syria

Readmitting Syria to the Arab League would mark the first normalization of high-level ties with Damascus since other countries in the organization turned against Bashar al Assad's government in 2011.

Faced with the reality that their strategies to counter Damascus in the civil war have failed, some powerful Arab states are warming up to the idea that working against Syria is no longer as strategic an option as working with the country. 

The Arab League's reinstatement of Syria would not immediately pave the way for the rest of the world to welcome Damascus back into the international fold, but it would mark a first step in the lengthy process of enabling others to do business with al Assad's government.

After years in the diplomatic wilderness due to its civil war, Syria may soon come in from the cold, at least in its immediate neighborhood. Recent diplomatic developments attest to the shifting sentiment: Last month, Sudanese President Omar al Bashir became the first head of state from an Arab League state to visit his Syrian counterpart in Damascus since the Syrian conflict began almost eight years ago. The same month, the United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy in Damascus after shuttering it in 2011. Neighboring countries like Jordan and Lebanon, which have suffered economically and politically from the raging conflict next door, are also mulling how and when to resume their strained ties with Syria. 

But among the clearest signs that Syria's standing in the Arab world is improving is the prospect that the Arab League will readmit Bashar al Assad's government, eight years after it voted to oust Damascus in response to its treatment of the country's opposition. In recent months, diplomatic sources have told The Guardian that a consensus is emerging among Arab League members — particularly the powerful and wealthy Arab Gulf states — that accepting Syria back into the fold would do them more good than harm. Ahead of the league's next annual summit in March in Tunisia, the bloc might be on the verge of a major shift in how the region approaches al Assad's Syria.

The Meaning of the Arab League

Formed in 1945 with British cajoling, the Arab League is an umbrella group for Arabic-speaking countries that works to achieve shared economic and political goals. The league, however, has become infamous for its weakness, in part because its decisions only apply to member states that affirm them. One common joke about the bloc is that it hasn't accomplished anything of note since 1967, when it issued resolutions against cooperating with Israel at its fourth summit. (Khartoum hosted the 1967 summit just a few months after Israel defeated the armies of six Arab states — a reverse that briefly brought together the bloc's members in their common enmity toward Israel.) Twelve years later, however, Egypt broke ranks to sign a peace deal with Israel, highlighting a pattern in which the bloc's weak resolutions are often made only to be broken.

Designed to cement unity, the Arab League has instead become a platform laying bare the extent of the region's disunity. Members states frequently abstain on votes, which occurred during the resolution on Syria in 2011, when Lebanon, Yemen and Syria voted against the motion and Iraq abstained. Even when members do agree on resolutions, as they did at a meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh in 2015 when they voted to create a joint military force to counter regional extremism, such calls have yielded little in the way of action. Indeed, the league's very declaration on the military alliance emphasized that the force would not participate in anti-Houthi operations in Yemen and that participation was optional. Moreover, an Egyptian-led "Arab military force" differs from a Saudi-led "Islamic Coalition to Counter Islamic Terrorism," both of which differ from the United States' so-called Middle East Strategic Alliance. In the end, the league's own decisions often highlight the proliferation of Middle Eastern subgroupings, underlining how everyone in the region is running in different directions. 

Designed to cement unity, the Arab League has instead become a platform laying bare the extent of the region's disunity.

Even comparatively straightforward initiatives to implement joint economic aid and development projects have proven difficult. For evidence, look no further than the poorly attended Arab League economic and social affairs meeting in Beirut this January. The league called the meeting to support Syria's rebuilding process, as well as reconstruction and development in other war- and poverty-torn corners of the Arab world. But instead, Lebanese President Michel Aoun was left to note the many no-shows in his opening address.

Onward to Tunisia

These familiar hurdles aside, the league remains the world's foremost Arab-only political entity. What's more, it's a crucial venue for providing political signals; who's at the table and who isn't does matter for the major Arab states. Regardless of whether the league readmits Syria before the annual summit in Tunisia, the decision signals that the countries of the Arab world are trying to turn the page (some more begrudgingly than others) on years of brutal conflict in Syria. Such a development carries with it a handful of economic and political implications that are bound to alter the region.

Politically, the slow-moving acceptance of Syria would indicate, very publicly, that the Arab Gulf states are shifting in how they work with Syria, whose government is one they and other Arab states sought to undermine for years. By accepting Syria back at the league's table, these countries would acknowledge their failure to bring someone else to power, first because the rebels they supported have largely lost their battle against al Assad and, second, because their Plan B to support the Syrian Democratic Forces is crumbling as the United States plans its withdrawal from Syria. Countries like Saudi Arabia's and the United Arab Emirates' support for Syria's return to the fold does not indicate their happiness that an Iran-aligned government remains in power in Damascus, but it does mean they acknowledge that the best course of action is to work with al Assad in an effort to wean him off of Iranian influence. 

For Arab states that border Syria, like Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, the war destroyed lucrative shipping and trading networks that these governments wish to rebuild quickly. Readmitting Syria to the league would enable Beirut to publicly bolster its trade with Damascus, while Baghdad and Amman could resurrect long-dormant trucking routes. And given that the war has added millions of Syrian refugees — along with an accompanying economic strain — to the populations of each of these states, these countries are eager to benefit from links with a diplomatically rehabilitated Syria. 

By accepting Syria back at the league's table, Gulf Arab countries would acknowledge that they have failed in their bid to bring someone else to power.

More broadly, Syria's reinstatement in the league could kick-start the costly task of reconstruction. Though U.S., EU and other sanctions will likely remain against Damascus for years to come, Arab Gulf states would encounter fewer legal and political issues in participating in reconstruction projects in Syria and rebuilding trade networks if the league recognizes al Assad's control. For trade and shipping hubs like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, increasing their available trade partners is advantageous. And for Arab states like Saudi Arabia deeply opposed to Iran's regional encroachment, the possibility of building positive economic ties with Syria in the long term could be part of a strategic shift to working with Iran's Arab allies to try and draw them into Riyadh's orbit. Indeed, Tehran's Arab detractors have already begun pursuing such a strategy in Iraq, where the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have increased their financial investment, media activities and cross-sectarian interactions to bolster their influence at the Islamic republic's expense. 

Beyond the Arab World

The league's eventual decision to work with Syria does not necessarily mean the rest of the world will immediately do so as well. Indeed, the overture is a risky gambit, especially as actors like the U.S. Congress remain committed to isolating al Assad economically. Nevertheless, the bloc's change of tack would decrease some of the toxicity surrounding Syria; Turkey, for example, has acknowledged that it must be ready to work with al Assad — so long as his government wins elections. 

And even though major external powers like the United States and Russia may not see eye to eye regarding whether to support Syria's current government, both understand the benefits of Arab League states collaborating more closely. Washington is struggling to foster unity among its Middle East allies as it searches for an alliance to help shoulder the burden of regional stabilization — a strategic U.S. goal. Russia, naturally, also stands to benefit if the league embraces Syria once more after Moscow stepped in to back al Assad with political capital, money and military aid.

After nearly a decade of war, Syria's current government has shown that it isn't going anywhere. For many in the Arab world, the regime's continued rule dashes their desire to see a more malleable government in Damascus, yet this is no longer the deal-breaker it once was. Realizing the use in working with al Assad rather than against him, the Arab League appears set to welcome Syria back into the fold. And where it goes, the rest of the world will be slowly pushed into following suit.

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