Arab League Debates Allowing Syria to Return

The Associated Press
The Associated Press

The Arab League announced on Monday that they have not yet reached a consensus on reinstating membership for Syria, which they froze out of the League in 2011 at the dawn of its brutal civil war. Discussions about reinstating Syria will evidently continue.

The statement on Monday by Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit was remarkably tortured and delicate, especially since it came from the nominal head of the organization:

I follow this subject very closely and I do not yet observe conclusions that lead to the consensus that we are talking about and that may lead to a foreign ministers meeting in which they announce the end of the difference and therefore call for Syria to return to occupy the seat.

Asked if he might be alluding to one of the two meetings of foreign ministers scheduled before a major Arab League summit in March, Gheit replied, “The matter is not time, the matter is will. The matter is consensus among the states. For Syria to return, there must be consensus.”

Gheit’s responses suggest there is strong sentiment both for and against restoring Syria’s suspended membership among the Arab League’s 22 members, and neither camp shows any sign of softening its position.

The secretary-general spoke from Lebanon, which hosted a fractious regional economic summit in January roiled by bitter arguments over Syria. Stated simply, Syria’s patrons Iran and Russia want to restore full membership for Damascus in regional organizations. Iran’s adversaries are reluctant to do so, but with the Syrian civil war wrapping up and dictator Bashar Assad secure in power, they will have increasing difficulty explaining why Syria’s membership should remain suspended.

At the January economic conference, Iran made clear its desire to use one of the foreign minister meetings before the March Arab League summit to vote on reinstating Syria. Arab League officials protested that Iran was moving too fast and said it was unlikely they would invite Syria to attend the March meeting.

Al-Jazeera took stock of where various League members stood as of January:

Late last year, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir became the first Arab League leader to visit Syria since the crisis began. In the following weeks, the UAE and Bahrain reopened their embassies in the country, but a consensus among the bloc remains elusive.

Days before the Beirut talks a number of Arab states made their positions clear. Iraq, which did not cut ties with Damascus, said it supports efforts to restore Syria’s membership of the Arab League. Qatar, a supporter of Syria’s opposition, stressed the reasons for Damascus’ suspension have not been addressed and there are no encouraging signs to push for normalizing ties.

Saudi Arabia has denied it plans to do what its allies – the UAE and Bahrain – did a few weeks ago.

“There was a momentum but it has slowed,” Sami Nader, political analyst, told Al Jazeera. “US Secretary of State Pompeo told them it is too early to normalize relations and talk about reconstruction before agreeing on the general elements of a political settlement.”

Al-Jazeera portrayed Egypt as one of the major holdouts against restoring Arab League membership for Syria. The Egyptians argue the group should not restore membership until negotiations to conclude the Syrian conflict are complete because premature normalization would strengthen Assad’s hand too much.

On the other hand, some advocates of restoring Syria’s membership think doing so could provide a check against Iranian ambitions because other League members would gain more economic and political influence in Damascus.

The UK Guardian in December predicted Syria’s membership in the Arab League will be restored before the end of 2019, putting Assad “shoulder to shoulder” with autocratic leaders Abdel Fatah el-Sisi of Egypt and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia to mark “the definitive death of the Arab Spring.”

In other words, the authoritarian states of the Middle East will have survived either a brief flowering of democracy or a subversive takeover by the hardcore Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, depending on one’s level of optimism or pessimism about the Arab Spring uprisings.

The Guardian’s source provided the same information as al-Jazeera’s, describing a “growing consensus” for readmitting Syria held at bay largely by pressure from Washington through Riyadh and Cairo to hold off on a vote.

Russia is aggressively lobbying Arab League states on Syria’s behalf, as described by Voice of America News on Friday:

The Kremlin has launched a diplomatic offensive with senior security officials touring Mideast capitals. Last month, Nikolai Patrushev, a member of President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, held talks in Abu Dhabi with the UAE’s national security adviser, Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan. He met also in Cairo with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Those talks followed a visit to Saudi Arabia by Sergey Naryshkin, head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, who discussed with Saudi’s Crown Prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, regional conflicts. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov discussed in Moscow Syria’s re-admission with Iraqi counterpart Mohammed Al Hakim last week, Western diplomats say.

Moscow has an enormous financial interest in normalizing relations between Syria and the rest of the Middle East, with hundreds of billions of dollars in Syrian reconstruction contracts on the line. Russian political influence in the region cannot fully blossom until neighboring countries no longer regard its client in Damascus as a pariah.

When they speak for public consumption, Russian diplomats working on Syria’s behalf stress the importance of unified effort against ISIS and other terrorist organizations, which Russia, Syria, and Iran have always portrayed as the driving forces behind the Syrian civil war.


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