GP Short Notes # 679, 25 May 2023
In the news
On 18 May, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reached Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, ahead of the Arab League Summit.
On 19 May, the 32nd Arab League summit was held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The summit discussed issues relating to Palestine, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Lebanon. The Jeddah Declaration reaffirmed security and stability in the region and welcomed Syria into the Arab League. According to the declaration, the member countries expressed: "hope that this resolution would contribute to supporting the stability of the Syrian Arab Republic, preserving its territorial integrity, and restoring its role within the Arab world."
During the summit, Assad said: "I hope that it marks the beginning of a new phase of Arab action for solidarity among us, for peace in our region, development and prosperity instead of war and destruction."
On 22 May, US Foreign Ministry's spokesperson stated: "We continue to oppose normalization with the Syrian regime. We do not believe it was appropriate to admit – readmit Syria into the Arab League and we made that position clear to our partners in the region."
Issues at large
First, a brief note on Syria and the Arab League. In November 2011, Syria was removed from the League following Assad's crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, leading to a civil war. The Arab League members, including UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, supported Assad's dissidents in Northern and Eastern Syria. Russia and Iran supported Assad.
Second, Syria's search for investments and aid. For Syria, returning to the Arab League is a means to lift Western sanctions. Though lifting sanctions will take a long time, joining the League is a promising start. Syria desperately needs investments and aid for reparations and reconstruction of infrastructure. According to the UN, two-thirds of the population requires humanitarian aid. Joining the League will make it easier for member countries to invest in and assist Syria.
Third, the support and opposition for Syria within the Arab League. The member countries aim to confront Syria regarding the refugee crisis and the trafficking of Captagon, a drug produced in Syria that provides revenue to the government. While the Arab League strongly opposed Assad's regime for years, the devastating earthquake of February triggered this development. Providing aid to Syrians in both government-controlled areas and dissidents-controlled areas was difficult.
Individual countries started normalizing relations with Assad for different reasons. Saudi Arabia, after normalizing relations with Iran, began to normalize its relations with Syria. In February, Assad visited Oman, followed by UAE in March. On 18 April, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud visited Damascus for the first time since the civil war. On 3 May, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited Damascus. The US opposed Syria joining the League but affirmed that it stands with the decisions of its Arab counterparts.
First, the return of Syria to the Arab League means Syrian refugees are likely to return to Syria. According to UNHCR, approximately 5.5 million refugees live in Syria's neighbouring countries, such as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq. Syria's return might benefit the Syrians, especially in the government-controlled areas.
Second, the Arab League member countries are expected to curb Syria's drug trafficking ventures by promising normalization of relations, aid and investments. Although the League is unable to push Iran completely out of Syria, its intentions lie in the betterment of the Syrians. Captagon will be used as leverage by both sides for the normalization of relations.
Third, the challenges ahead. For Assad, though it seems like he has won the civil war, countries are unlikely to forget the 14 million people who fled Syria and the 6.8 million internally displaced, according to the (UNHCR). Holding Assad unaccountable for the crimes committed by the Syrian government might further exacerbate the civil war. For the US, their foothold in the region is waning. Chinese mediation in the peace process between Saudi Arabia and Iran is one of the reasons. The Arab League's decision to reinstate Syria came as a surprise to the West, especially to the US. The US's response to the developments in the region is mostly supportive of the regional players' decisions.