Saudi Arabia to host next Arab League: Will Syria be invited?

Saudi Arabia to host next Arab League: Will Syria be invited?
Will Saudi Arabia invite Syria to the Arab League as the two countries reconcile?
3 min read
28 March, 2023
Human rights monitors expressed concerns that regional normalisation with Assad was occurring at the expense of accountability for war crimes committed by his regime. [Getty]

On Sunday, the Arab League announced that its next summit will take place in Saudi Arabia on 19 May, prompting questions on whether or not Riyadh will invite Syria to the meeting after recent regional rapprochement.

Syria was expelled from the pan-Arab body in 2011 after the Syrian regime's bloody crackdown on peaceful protesters.

Saudi Arabia was also one of several countries to sever diplomatic ties with Damascus in 2012.

The upcoming Arab League meeting will occur against the backdrop of several geopolitical shifts in the region, including reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

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Several countries, including Saudi Arabia, have also made unprecedented diplomatic contact with the Syrian regime after the devastating 6 February earthquake.

On 8 March, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal Bin Farhan said that dialogue "may well lead eventually to Syria returning to the Arab League. But for now, I think it's too early to discuss."

Saudi state TV reported last week that Saudi Arabia and Syria are in talks to resume consular activities between the two countries.

"Normalisation can mean many things, and there are a lot of steps to take. Even if there's progress in reviving the relationship now, the process can still bog down on the next step. The Syrians are famously intransigent," Aron Lund, a fellow with Century International, told The New Arab.

Algeria expressed interest in restoring Syria's membership at last year's Arab League summit but was blocked by countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

"If the Saudis want to lead on this issue, they may want the Riyadh summit to be the occasion for Syria's return. Inviting Assad seems like it would be a big step, so maybe it’d be a lower-level delegation," Lund said.

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While countries such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan are pushing towards regional reintegration of the Assad regime, the US and the EU have held firm in their rejection of the normalisation trend.

On 27 March, 40 Syrian civil society leaders and former US officials signed a "bipartisan policy letter" urging the US government to "maintain the line against Assad’s regime," as well as to adopt other more specific policy points on Syria.

Republican members of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee have previously "expressed concern" when the Biden administration engaged with the Assad regime.

Members of civil society and human rights monitors have expressed alarm at the regional trend towards normalisation, saying it is a blow to accountability in Syria and the international human rights regime.

"This is the same regime that these states criticised and condemned. The Assad regime is still the same, it’s still committing crimes against humanity. Fighting war crimes is a responsibility for all states," Fadel Abdul Ghany, the founder and head of the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), told TNA.

He said that these should make normalisation contingent on the regime taking positive steps towards accountability and justice, such as releasing all political detainees.