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NORMALIZATION

How Damascus won back its place in the Arab League

The United Arab Emirates, followed by Saudi Arabia a few years later, played a leading role in the Assad regime’s return to the Arab League.

How Damascus won back its place in the Arab League

A portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on May 3, 2021. (Credit: AFP archives)

In March 2013, two years after the Syrian revolution, which was violently subdued by the Assad regime, the opposition in exile was living a historic moment.

At the Arab summit in Doha, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, also known as the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) — the main opposition grouping launched in Istanbul with a view to achieving a democratic transition in the country — took Syria’s seat, which had been vacant since Damascus was suspended from the Arab League in 2011.

Some observers at the time perceived it as a sign pointing to a final rupture between the pan-Arab organization and the Syrian regime.

Ten years after the Doha summit, the Arab League reinstated Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, following a decision by Arab foreign ministers in a meeting held on Sunday at the organization’s headquarters in Cairo.

The decision is highly symbolic. It largely consecrates an Assad victory in the Syrian war, which was made possible through key efforts made by influential Arab nations, guided by the pursuit of their own strategic interests and a pragmatic vision on the issue.

How did the international pariah manage to return to the Arab fold?

Sponsors of Syrian rebels

It all began eight months after the Syrian revolution broke out in March 2011 in the wake of the Arab Spring, and its subsequent bloody repression. The Gulf states urged the Arab League to intervene and sanction the Assad regime.

In November, Damascus was suspended. This was a symbolic ban. Syria was one of the six founding countries of the pan-Arab organization in 1945.

Eighteen of the league’s 22 members expressed support for Damascus’ suspension. Syria, Lebanon and Yemen were opposed, while Iraq abstained from voting.

A “historic day for Syria as a country, for the Syrian revolution and for the Arab League,” the secretary-general of the Syrian National Council, which is the main component of the SNC, said at the time.

At the same time, the Arab League imposed political and economic sanctions on the Assad government, which was already subject to punitive measures by the West.

The majority of the region’s countries closed their diplomatic representations in Syria, as jointly announced by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in February 2012.

However, different approaches started to emerge among its members. While Oman withdrew its ambassador from the war-torn country that same year, the sultanate maintained contacts with Damascus, unlike its Gulf neighbors.

Others, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, became sponsors of the Syrian rebels. As opposition to the regime forces became more organized, the Arab League announced in 2012 that it was preparing to provide political and material support.

“At the peak of the war, the Arab League actually invited the exiled Syrian opposition to attend their meetings on behalf of Syria,” said Aron Lund, a researcher at Century International and Middle East analyst at the Swedish Defense Research Agency (FOI). The body was considering allocating Syria’s seat to the opposition on a permanent basis for a while, before it became empty again.

“I think this was probably both because of rivalries within the anti-Assad camp, between the Qataris and the Saudi-Emirati camp, and because several states had doubts about the opposition’s staying power,” he added.

In addition, Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon opposed the idea of allocating the seat officially to the opposition.

Gradually, faced with the failure of peace missions by Arab League mediators, chosen in cooperation with the United Nations, the league became “largely missing from Syria because of the dominant Russian role in the country and the near absence of the United States,” said Radwan Ziadeh, an analyst at the Arab Center in Washington, D.C., in an analysis in October 2020.

This ineffectiveness was exacerbated by divisions between its member states, including the three-year dispute between Doha on the one hand, and Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Manama and Cairo on the other, which accused Doha of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and of being too close to Tehran.

Spearhead

While each power pursued its own interests, several regional countries were gradually taking a pragmatic view, as they had no choice in dealing with Syria other than to accept the regime.

“So with Assad seemingly having won the war, it was a question of time until there would be enough support to reactivate Syria’s Arab League membership,” said Lund.

The UAE, which was the first to move forward and restore diplomatic ties with Damascus, displayed its desire to bring Syria back into the Arab fold in 2018. With other countries in the region initially cautious on the issue, Abu Dhabi quickly moved up a gear.

“The UAE was a driving force at the regional level,” said Joseph Daher, a senior lecturer in political science at Lausanne University and affiliate professor at the European University Institute, Florence.

“Oman too, but more as a regional mediator than through its political weight,” he added.

After the UAE reopened its embassy in the Syrian capital in late 2018, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed met with the Syrian president in the fall of 2021.

Assad was received the following spring by Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed on his first trip to an Arab country since 2011.

Abu Dhabi’s priority was to fight against the influence of Iran in Syria, while it also sought to sign key contracts pertaining to the post-war reconstruction, estimated at several hundred billion dollars.

As time went on, several countries followed the UAE’s lead, including Jordan and Egypt — particularly as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi considered Assad as a support in the fight against Islamist terrorism.

There have been rumors for years that Syria could rejoin the pan-Arab body. Lund said that ahead of the league’s previous summit, held in the Algerian capital in 2022, “Algeria wanted to invite the Syrian government back for the Algiers summit in 2022, and was thwarted by Saudi and other opposition.”

Riyadh wanted to weaken Tehran and demanded concessions on the issue. It also wanted to curb the smuggling of captagon across its border. For its part, Doha, which has supported the Syrian rebels since the beginning of the revolution, continued to oppose normalization with Damascus.

Earthquake diplomacy

Things really speeded up for the Assad regime after Feb. 6, 2023. Both the government in Damascus and its regional partners saw the devastating earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria that day as the perfect opportunity to move forward in resuming relations.

Even Saudi Arabia has adopted this earthquake diplomacy. “In the GCC, and in the Arab world, there is a growing consensus that the status quo is not sustainable,” Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said in February.

In the space of two months, everything has accelerated, at Riyadh’s initiative. In March, Saudi Arabia announced that it had started the process of resuming consular services with its former foe, before Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Moqdad met his Saudi counterpart in Saudi Arabia on a first visit since 2011.

On April 15, the kingdom also convened the foreign ministers of the other five GCC countries, as well as their Egyptian, Iraqi and Jordanian counterparts, in Jeddah. The diplomats agreed that the Arab countries must play a “leading role” in resolving the Syrian crisis, according to Riyadh.

Three days later, the Saudi foreign minister made an unprecedented visit to Damascus at the invitation of Assad, confirming the reconciliation between the two powers.

On May 1, the first discussions between the Syrian government and the foreign ministers of Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Jordan took place in Amman, in a bid to agree on a roadmap.

“While the UAE were the first, among the influential Arab nations, to normalize their relations with Damascus, the normalization process between Saudi Arabia and the Syrian regime has changed the game,” said Daher. “Riyadh is a game changer.”


This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.

In March 2013, two years after the Syrian revolution, which was violently subdued by the Assad regime, the opposition in exile was living a historic moment. At the Arab summit in Doha, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, also known as the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) — the main opposition grouping launched in Istanbul with a view to achieving a democratic...