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The Arab League (League) heartwarmingly welcomed back the Syrian regime after more than a decade of suspension. The decision to readmit Bashar al-Assad, the president of devastated Syria, came ahead of the 32nd annual Arab League Summit, which took place this May in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
“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,” al-Assad stated during his speech at the Summit.
The issue of Syria’s return has been raised multiple times in the past decade but never implemented due to a lack of unanimity among the members. Before last year’s Summit, Hossam Zaki, Assistant Secretary-General of the League, concluded that Syria’s return “needs an Arab consensus that is not currently available.” Furthermore, “[if] the General Secretariat of the League observes the necessary consensus among the Arab states, [these] steps will be [immediately] taken.” However, two weeks before this year’s Summit, only 13 ministers out of the 22 Arab nations attended an emergency meeting held in Cairo, at the request of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to discuss Syria’s return. It was those member states that paved the path for Syria’s readmission.
Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to the UAE’s president, tweeted that Syria’s return was “a positive step.” Saudi Arabia — who had previously fueled the protests against al-Assad in Syria — and Egypt, two nations who stood against Damascus’s return to the Arab fold in 2022, also welcomed the decision. While Morocco, Kuwait, and Yemen opted against the decision, Qatar approved of reinstatement and not normalization. Although in 2022, Qatar’s Foreign Ministry rejected readmission and claimed that “the reasons for which Damascus’ membership was suspended are still valid.”
The Arab Spring in Syria turned into a devastating war that has shattered the nation and its people. From the outset, al-Assad’s regime has taken the most violent measures to crush the protests, leading to one of the most horrific humanitarian crises the world has ever seen. Continuing their onslaught on the eight-month-old protests, Damascus was suspended from the League by Arab leaders, who were inspired by the US’s sanctions, in November 2011.
Twelve years later, al-Assad, whose regime has killed nearly half a million people since March 2011 and displaced half of the country’s pre-war population of 23 million, is still Syria’s ‘elected president.’ It is therefore worth asking: why was the same person who was expelled in 2011, with no change in sight, readmitted back to the League? Why did Arab leaders who once pushed for al-Assad’s ouster change their minds now?
A Series of Diplomatic Shifts in the Middle East
The answer to the former question lies in the significance that Syria’s readmission to the League poses on the region as a whole. When Syria’s readmission is put in context and analyzed among other chains of changes and decisions, it fits as one piece in the changing regional puzzle. That said, regional affairs and priorities have shifted these past few years, forming a new order that aims to control instabilities, reduce economic vulnerabilities, and alter Western engagement in the region. It is as al-Assad said confidently at the Summit, “[t]his is the ideal opportunity for us [Arabs] to reshape our affairs with as little foreign intervention as possible.”
One of the most unforeseen shifts was the rapprochement of affairs, moderated by Beijing, between Saudi Arabia and Iran, long-time regional adversaries, in March this year. The Saudi-Iranian deal not only comes as a surprise to revamp the region’s diplomatic affairs but may also pave the way to a ceasefire in Yemen, where the two countries’ rivalry has contributed to a decade-long war and one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises. In addition to other regional changes, including the reintegration of Qatar after three years of diplomatic spat with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt, the readmission of Syria to the League symbolizes another diplomatic shift in the Middle East.
The new patterns of de-escalating regional instabilities and newly formed alliances are a collective surprise to a region always cursed by hostile geo-relations. These changes are understood best by analyzing the advantages of reintegrating Syria, bringing its neighbors and the battle between the US, China, and Russia into the region.
The War on Drugs
The League was not transparent as to the grounds they were readmitting al-Assad back on. There are some apparent, though different, self-interested factors that Arab leaders would want al-Assad back into the fold. For Saudi Arabia, readmitting and resuming its ties with Syria works as part of the country’s de-risking strategy for its soon-to-be economic and touristic hub. Restoring relations with Syria fuels the Kingdom’s main objective of having a stable political environment in the region that would not hinder its future ambitions, namely reducing dependence on oil revenues and, in turn, diversifying its economy.
Countries like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Jordan are also trying to control the influx of the captagon drug into their borders, which is produced mainly in Syria. The narcotic is believed to be produced and traded by al-Assad’s regime. Of course, Damascus denies that, and the mainstream Syrian media constantly propagandize its efforts to combat the drug trade inside the country. Launching predominantly from Syria, multi-billion dollars’ worth of captagon pills are smuggled to countries across the region. Therefore, Arab states see a possible solution to the captagon curse through resuming ties with Damascus, which pledged to combat the smuggling of the drug.
The Dynamics of International Involvement in the Middle East
The former reasons for driving Arab nations to restore their ties with Damascus aren’t new; the captagon trade has plagued the region for years, and the Saudi vision 2030 was launched almost seven years ago. This raises the question of why Arab leaders changed their stance on al-Assad now out of all times.
While the answer partially lies in the reasons above, it would not have been possible without the shift in alliance and affairs: from a strong partnership with the US to a possibly stronger one with the US’s adversaries — Russia, China, and Iran — who also happen to be al-Assad’s greatest allies. The shift in the alliance is not a mere coincidence, but the motive is that different Arab nations, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are trying to diversify their alliances, taking a non-zero-sum approach to their international relations.
For years, the US held a commanding role in the Middle East, securing strong alliances with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and other countries in the region. Since the outbreak of the Syrian War, the US has publicly viewed al-Assad as a villainous figure, imposing sanctions to deprive the regime “of the resources it needs.” Its stance on al-Assad was primarily a validation for its presence and intervention in the Syrian War, fighting the Russian-backed regime. In hindsight, however, Syria served as the proxy battleground for the US on one side and its adversaries in the East on the other — primarily Russia, Iran, and China on many scales. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE, among other Arab nations, have chosen, for years, to follow the US’s footsteps in their relations with Damascus.
However, by restoring ties with al-Assad, Russia’s long-time partner, Arab leaders are moving closer to Moscow and its allies and farther from Washington. China, the US’s competitor and adversary, also plays a significant role in the region. Beijing has been strengthening its long-standing partnership with Damascus, perhaps perceiving Syria as a strong ally that would advance its vision for the Belt and Road Initiative (Silk Road), which runs through many parts of the world, including Syria.
China’s economic ambitions have expanded its influence in the region, filling the void left by the US. China’s presence ranges from mediating the deal that restored Saudi-Iranian relations, providing Saudi Arabia’s new city, Neom, with surveillance technology, to making massive investments in countries like Iraq. Most recently, in the Arab-China Summit, also known as “Collaborating for Prosperity,” the Kingdom announced billions of dollars in investment deals between China and Arab nations, further sidelining the US.
Diplomats from Russia, China and Iran welcomed and congratulated al-Assad’s return to the Arab fold. Such a reaction signals that Arab nations restoring their ties with al-Assad now, out of all times, is greatly influenced by a shift in alliances, an alteration in geopolitical relations, and the weaker presence of the US in the region, all while securing their self-interested ambitions. It appears as though Arab leaders have realized they need al-Assad back to their fold more than he needs them; al-Assad is their key to securing their newly founded alliances, stabilizing the region, and controlling the influx of drugs into their borders.
The Message Syria’s Return Sends
The readmission of Syria will not impact the future of the League and its activities significantly. In the end, the Arab League is just a “regional club” that has not made major accomplishments for the region since its establishment or solved any of its long-standing problems, such as the Palestinian issue. In the meantime, the significance of Syria’s readmission remains no more than a symbolic act for a united Arab League and a beginning for an unanticipated future.
Even with Syria’s return, the US and Europe are still against normalizing relations with Syria and have not lifted sanctions on the al-Assad regime. The US has even been considering a new measure, called the Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act of 2023, that would penalize Arab countries if they were to invest in Syria. What this act indicates is still uncertain, but it also reveals the limits on how much countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia can invest in Syria.
Yet, the symbolism of Syria’s return is a betrayal by Arab nations to the decade-old Syrian war. In readmitting Syria, the League has led to the normalization of ties with the same autocrat who murdered and displaced millions of people worldwide and ignored the tragedies that hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been through for more than a decade.
Edited by Alexandra