On Friday, at least five Arab foreign ministers met in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to discuss Syria’s re-admission to the Arab League, more than a decade after it was kicked from the pan-Arab group for its brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters.
The Syrian regime’s treatment of its people has not changed despite ten years passing since its expulsion. Arbitrary detention and torture of civilians by Syrian security services are prevalent throughout Syria, and on the same day of the Jeddah meeting, the regime shelled areas of northern Syria with artillery.
The region’s treatment of the Syrian regime has changed, however, as states like Saudi Arabia and Jordan have come to view Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as the victor of the country’s civil war.
The pace of normalisation with Damascus, at first gradual, has rapidly sped up after the 6 February earthquake.
On Tuesday, the Saudi foreign minister was in Damascus for the first time in over 11 years. If not for reported opposition from countries like Qatar and Jordan in Friday’s meeting, Syria likely would have been invited to next month’s Arab League summit.
Competing visions of normalisation
The lack of a consensus on Syria’s re-entry into the Arab League reveals that even if an increasing number of countries within the region agree that they should normalise with Damascus, they are at odds with how they should go about doing so.
“There’s a seeming convergence among most Arab countries on re-engaging Damascus, minus a few notable holdouts such as Qatar. It appears there’s less of a convergence on how to deal with Damascus, or who should be in the lead,” Sam Heller, a fellow with Century International, told The New Arab.
The three countries leading the charge on re-integrating Syria into the regional fold – Jordan, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia – each has vastly different approaches to dealing with Damascus.
Jordan has promoted a “step-by-step” approach which promises increased diplomatic engagement with Assad in exchange for key concessions.
Concessions include the Assad regime guaranteeing conditions that allow for a safe return of refugees, a crackdown on the smuggling of the stimulant narcotic Captagon across Jordan’s borders, and the release of political prisoners.
A version of this plan was presented by Jordanian King Abdullah to US President Joe Biden when the former visited Washington, D.C. in the summer of 2021. The US gave a “yellow-light” to the plan, according to informed Jordanian sources.
Jordan envisions a coalition of actors engaging with Syria on this plan, including Egypt, Israel, and Gulf countries, with itself leading the dialogue with Syria.
Saudi Arabia similarly has pushed for a consensus-based approach towards normalisation with Syria, with the Saudi FM saying a “new approach” towards Damascus must be formed in the wake of the earthquake.
Unlike Jordan, Saudi Arabia has not said that it wants anything in return for facilitating Syria’s return to the international stage. Reportedly, countries involved in discussions on whether or not to re-admit Syria to the Arab League complained that Saudi Arabia was giving too much away to Syria without asking for anything in return.
For its part, the UAE has been moving unilaterally towards reconciliation with Damascus since at least December 2018 when it reopened its embassy in Syria. It has worked with Syria to promote the latter’s re-integration in the region, including by promoting talks between Syria and Turkey aimed at repairing relations between the two countries.
The three countries have yet to come to an agreement on how to engage with Damascus, and until now, have seemingly worked on a purely bilateral level with Syria.
However, even if a regional approach is formed which makes demands of Damascus, it’s likely the now-rapid pace of normalisation could hit a roadblock.
“It’s not clear to me, though, that it’s possible to extract these concessions from Damascus, or that it’s possible in this fashion, as part of a more formal, rigid, 'step-for-step' approach,” Heller said.
Despite Jordan signalling it wanted a detente with Damascus, with King Abdullah calling Assad in the fall of 2021, the latter made no attempt to comply with the steps towards normalisation laid out for it. In fact, drug smuggling attempts across Jordan’s border actually increased following Abdullah’s call.
“Remember, prior to the February earthquake and the flurry of diplomatic engagement that followed, Jordan had basically hit a wall in its attempts to deal with Damascus,” Heller added.
A symbolic victory for Assad, a real loss for accountability
The Arab League, originally formed in an effort to boost regional cooperation between Arab states in 1945, has little power to affect developments on the ground today. Syria’s potential accession to the body would have little concrete policymaking value for the country.
Still, returning to the body would be a hugely symbolic victory for President Assad and his supporters, who have cast his crackdown against rebels as standing steadfast against the Western world.
“Even the Syrians have said that they need to work on bilateral relations before dealing with the Arab League. But if all the countries are on board, (…) it really limits the amount that one country can extract from the Syrian regime,” Natasha Hall, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and Intelligence Studies (CSIS), told TNA.
Assad would gain much-needed legitimacy abroad, where he has been cast as a pariah for the last 12 years.
“This helps in convincing the international community to recognize him again and consider him [the] legitimate leader of Syria. Just as importantly, Arab legitimacy may be followed by desperately needed reconstruction funds,” Dr Imad Harb, the director of research and analysis at the Arab Center, told TNA.
If re-occupying a seat in the Arab League is a win for Assad, it is a huge loss for all those fighting for accountability for the more than 130,000 imprisoned in Syrian regime prisons.
Syrian human rights groups have campaigned against normalisation with Syria, with organisations like Families for Freedom saying, “this is not the time to normalise”.
Others have called for states like the US to come out more strongly against Arab states reconciling with the Assad regime.
Experts have also said that reconciliation with the Assad regime without preconditions of accountability and reforms makes the likelihood of a political settlement unlikely.
“The more you give to Bashar al-Assad without asking for anything in return that would lead to a more acceptable political resolution, the less reason they would have to compromise on anything,” Hall said.
William Christou is The New Arab's Levantine correspondent, covering the politics of the Levant and the Mediterranean.
Follow him on Twitter: @will_christou