The MED This Week newsletter provides expert analysis and informed insights on the most significant developments in the MENA region, bringing together unique opinions on the topic and reliable foresight on possible future scenarios. Today we shed light upon the Arab League’s decision to reintegrate Syria, thus ending a 12-year suspension and marking a tangible diplomatic milestone for al-Assad.
More than ten years after its suspension, Syria has been readmitted to the Arab League. During an emergency meeting held in Cairo on May 7, Arab foreign ministers agreed to reinstate Damascus’ membership, reversing a decision taken back in 2011 after the bloody crackdown of popular protests by regime forces. Highly symbolic, this vote is the latest step in Arab reconciliation efforts with Damascus, a process that has recently gained significant momentum after the February 6 earthquake. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has led recent efforts to bring Syria back into the Arab fold, with the historic visit of the Saudi Foreign Minister to Damascus in April and, more recently, with the decision to restore diplomatic relations. Still, many uncertainties loom in the background, as it is unclear how far Damascus will go with its concessions to the Arab states, especially regarding the Captagon trade, the return of Syrian refugees, and the restart of the political process. Further, the decision to restore Syria’s seat within the League was opposed by some Arab states – like Qatar – that are staunchly criticising the normalisation. Both Washington and Brussels are also sceptical about the concessions towards Assad. On the other hand, Tehran welcomed the announcement of the League, perceived not as a threat to its influence in the country but as part of a broader reconfiguration of regional architecture.
Experts from the ISPI network react to the regional implications of Syria’s readmission in the Arab League.
The League has limited power, and its members are sceptical about concessions from Assad
“Syria’s readmission to the Arab League was by no means a unanimous decision – a fact exemplified by the role of only thirteen of the twenty-one voting members in the final decision. Deep scepticism prevails in a number of regional capitals that engaging with Assad’s regime will not bring anything in the way of substantive concessions, let alone a comprehensive settlement. Moreover, the Arab League isn’t much more than a symbolic body, and without significant diplomatic progress, not a lot is actually likely to change. The United States and Europe remain committed to their policy of punitive isolation, and without this changing, the likes of Qatar, Kuwait, and others can stand tall, abiding by their principled stances.”
Charles Lister, Senior Fellow, Director of Syria and Countering Terrorism & Extremism programs
Intra-regional cooperation will be taken forward step by step, as challenges still remain
“Any regional economic cooperation with Syria will – and should – be conditioned upon meaningful and irreversible political advancements towards the full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Therefore, this cooperation will be gradual and incremental, depending on the behaviour of Syrian authorities. The starting point will be humanitarian support, especially as needs are severely acute following the February earthquake. Should that engagement be fruitful, and should the Syrian authorities abide by the humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence, and also provide the necessary security guarantees, we might start seeing some regional funding going towards early recovery projects such as the rehabilitation of water stations and other essential humanitarian infrastructures. Syria will more than likely be active again within the Arab League economic and social commission and will step up its cooperation with United Nations Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA). Beyond this, imagining other cooperation mechanisms to kick in is still challenging: whether it be towards potential reconstruction programmes or further integration into economic cooperation mechanisms. The Syrian authorities’ willingness and efficiency in dismantling Captagon manufacturing and trade routes will remain a key criterion.”
Assad Al-Achi, Executive Director, Baytna Syria
Riyadh’s three-pronged Syrian strategy: de-escalation, economic cooperation, and pragmatism
“Saudi Arabia’s decision to restore diplomatic relations with Syria sheds light on the new course of Saudi regional policy. Three words synthesize Riyadh’s current strategy: de-escalation, economic cooperation, and pragmatism. This combination perfectly fits the new Saudi approach to Bashar Al Assad’s Syria. The Saudis are pursuing three goals by reintegrating Damascus into the Arab League: they want to re-engage in Syria to play a role in the reconstruction process, entering a political-economic scenario in which Iran has had the upper hand so far, and to curb drug smuggling through Syria into the Gulf. In this way, Riyadh joins the UAE, Bahrain, and Oman – who previously returned to Damascus – to lead the Arab consensus. Only Qatar, which still refuses to resume diplomatic relations with Syria, so carving out a more critical stance vis-à-vis the Assad regime that the United States will endorse”.
Eleonora Ardemagni, Associate Research Fellow, ISPI
Curbing Syria’s Captagon trade: A top priority for Arab nations
“The Captagon trade is not only a public health issue for the Gulf monarchies but also a matter of national security for Syria’s neighbours, Jordan in particular. A piece of evidence in this sense is the decision taken by Amman to start carrying out air strikes in southern Syria, which earlier this week resulted in the destruction of a factory and the killing of a drug kingpin. In this context, while the rationale of Arab countries towards normalising ties appears straightforward, it is still unclear how far Damascus can go – and how willing it is – in clamping down the Captagon trade. Drug smuggling has become a pivotal source of revenues for the regime and its cronies, and unless the incentives to do so are satisfying enough, Assad is unlikely to give up on this financial stream.”
Mattia Serra, MENA Centre ISPI
Syria’s reintegration won’t limit Tehran’s influence over Damascus
“Bringing Syria back into the Arab fold and away from Iran has been a priority for some – if not all – Arab countries pursuing normalisation of relations with the Assad regime. But Tehran’s military, economic, and political ties with Damascus have drastically expanded in the last decade, and Iran has cemented its foothold in key strategic areas around Syria. Iran has paid a heavy price for its involvement in the Syrian War. Internationally, it led to Tehran’s isolation in both regional and global affairs. Domestically, it fuelled internal dissent over the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy. And economically, it is seen as amongst many, as one of the causes for Iran’s broken economy, along with other areas where Tehran spends financial capital abroad. Thus, Iran has prepared for this eventual reintegration of Syria within the Arab League, so much so that the foreign ministry welcomed the recent announcement. Considering the recent détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as the increased diplomatic engagement between regional officials around the Gulf, Syria’s readmittance to the Arab League should be viewed as part of the broader reconfiguration of the regional security and economic architecture.”
Mehran Haghirian, Director of Regional Initiatives, Bourse & Bazaar Foundation
For Washington and Brussels, Syria’s readmission should not be given for free
“The United States and the European Union do not view the latest reintegration of Syria into the Arab League positively as they don’t believe that Syria deserves to be readmitted. They have clearly stated that they have no intention of normalising relations with the Syrian regime in the current context, especially since Damascus has not made any concessions regarding a potential political process based on UN resolution 2254 or to engage in any political process. The regime will not deliver upon issues mentioned in the “conditions” of the Arab League, such as allowing a substantial return of refugees, a massive release of political prisoners or a political transition. Moreover, this decision confirms the weakening of the USA, especially in imposing its political agenda on regional states like Saudi Arabia, which has increasingly carved out political autonomy because of the relative weakening of US power within the international order. In other words, the US and EU positions are weakened by these evolutions in the Syrian case. At the same time, we should acknowledge that for Washington, Syria is not a priority in its foreign policy agenda.”
Joseph Daher, Affiliate Professor, European University Institute (EUI)
This week’s MED This Week has been edited by Francesco Schiavi and Luigi Toninelli