Region benefits from Syria scoring a win with Arab League

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry (center), Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit (left), and assistant Secretary-General of the Arab League Hossam Zaki (right) attend an emergency meeting of Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo on May 7, 2023. (PHOTO / AFP)

The Arab League’s decision to restore Syria’s membership marks a victory for the conflict-battered country, and the breakthrough will help Damascus normalize relations with the other member states of the pan-Arab organization, according to analysts. 

On May 7, foreign ministers of the Arab League nations voted at a meeting in the Egyptian capital Cairo to restore Syria's membership in the organization, ending 12 years of suspension and isolation. According to a report by Xinhua News Agency, the ministers also agreed on the need to intensify efforts "to help Syria out of its crisis" and preserve its sovereignty, unity, stability and regional integrity.

In the 12-year conflict, the United Nations estimates that more than 350,000 people have died in Syria, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts the number at more than half a million

Dina Yulianti Sulaeman, director of the Indonesia Center for Middle East Studies and lecturer in international relations at Padjadjaran University in Indonesia, said the development represents “a victory for Syria”, after the membership decision was postponed earlier “because the Arab League adhered to the regime-change agenda led by the United States”. 

READ MORE: Calls grow for Syria to rejoin Arab League

With the help of its allies, Syria “managed to prevail against all threats”, she said. 

Syria has been in crisis and divided into factions after demonstrations broke out in 2011, turning into a full-scale civil war. The presence of an estimated 900 American troops in the country has been criticized by the Syrian government led by President Bashar al-Assad, which rejects the US military intervention and calls its continued presence illegal. 

In the 12-year conflict, the United Nations estimates that more than 350,000 people have died in Syria, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts the number at more than half a million. 

Sulaeman said amid the declining power of the US in the Middle East and “the increasingly significant role of China” in mediating various conflicts in the region, the Arab League countries “appear to be more daring” to make decisions that are contrary to the wishes of the US.  

Al Jazeera reported that opposition groups have criticized the normalization with Damascus, but the Arab bloc said it was the way forward. Assistant Secretary-General of the Arab League Hossam Zaki was quoted as saying by Al Jazeera that “we respect all opinions on this issue. We understand what the opposition has been saying and we do appreciate that they are in a difficult position”.

Khaled Almasri, a former dean of the Faculty of International Relations and Diplomacy at Al-Sham Private University in Damascus, told China Daily that Syria’s return to the Arab fold was a symbolic step that could bring some change. But he is not fully optimistic yet, noting that Arab states and the Syrian government have yet to agree on concessions or solutions.

On May 7, a committee made up of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, and the Arab League secretary-general was formed to continue dialogue with the Syrian government to reach a comprehensive solution to the Syrian crisis.

This was a follow-up to a meeting held on May 1 in Amman, Jordan, among the foreign ministers of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt and Syria to discuss a political solution to Syria's humanitarian, security and political crises. The talks were part of an initiative led by Amman for an Arab normalization with Syria.

In April, a similar ministerial meeting was held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, by Gulf Cooperation Council states, in addition to Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, to discuss Syria's situation.

“I think this was being prepared for a while now, since the United Arab Emirates restored relations (with Syria) and (Syrian President Assad) visiting the Emirates twice. Also (with) the first call yesterday being with (UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan), this cemented the role the UAE diplomacy did to reach this moment,” according to Rasha Al Joundy, senior researcher for Gulf Affairs at Dubai Public Policy Research Centre.

Despite the decision to resume Syria's participation in the Arab League meetings, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Secretary-General of the Arab League, clarified that this does not imply that the Syrian crisis has been resolved and that it will take time to find a resolution.

He noted that Syria's return to its seat in the Arab League is not the end, but rather a special decision for each country individually to resume relations with Syria, according to report by Jordan News, a multichannel English-language news organization based in Amman.

Further, it means that the decision regarding Syria is specific to each country and its own circumstances.

READ MORE: Arab states mend ties with Syria after devastating earthquakes

Al Joundy said this mention of a diplomatic solution by the Arab League could be part of pushing for concessions that would help with Syria’s political solution without making it as a demand from any party in the conflict.

In a statement issued by Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on May 7, official spokesperson Majed bin Mohammad Al Ansari stressed that Doha’s position of not admitting Syria into the league “has not changed” but that it “always seeks to support achieving Arab consensus and will not be an obstacle to that”.

The statement also said that Qatar’s decision is linked primarily to progress in the political solution that “fulfills the aspirations of the Syrian people” and hoped that the Arab consensus would “be a motive for the Syrian regime to address the roots of the crisis that led to its boycott” and take positive steps towards addressing the issues of the Syrian people, as well as enhancing security and stability in the region.