Embassies paving his way to the Arab League, Will al-Assad be embraced by the Arabs again?
Enab Baladi Investigation Team
Dia Odeh – Reham al-Assaad – Nour Dalati
Al-Assad has been welcoming talks about encouraging some Arab countries to re-establish relations with him with the attitude of a winner. The same way he has recently welcomed the embassies of UAE and Bahrain to Damascus. He also welcomed the visit of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, whose jet landed peacefully at the airport.
Gradually and quietly, the Arab world is embracing al-Assad again, providing him with political support to reinforce his military progress on the ground in Syria and open up new economic horizons.
Amid the convergence of some Arab countries with the Syrian regime, a lot of talk has been going on about al-Assad’s return to the Arab League, following an Arab consensus which may ignore rejecting voices and allow the President to take the Syrian seat after eight years of absence being sometimes replaced by his opponents.
A few days before the end of 2018, the flag of the UAE was raised in Abu Rummaneh neighborhood in Damascus and so did the Bahraini flag on the following day, declaring the two countries resuming diplomatic ties with Syria. This has occurred few days after a visit of the Sudanese President to Damascus, during which he met Bashar al-Assad.
The changes which had occurred at the end of 2018 have turned into speculation that the regime will return to the Arab League thanks to the support of the Saudi-UAE axis as well as the endorsement of the Arab countries affiliated to this axis.
The Syrian researcher at Omran Center for Strategic Studies, Sasha al-Alou, believes that both countries are leading a campaign to restore relationships between the Arabs and the regime, having UAE in the front and KSA in backstage. “A year and a half ago, the statements of the two countries as well as the direct messages they sent, were clear that their problem is with Iran, not the regime. This has been evident through Ali Mamlouk visits to the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
During an interview with Enab Baladi, al-Alou stated that “this return will also pave the way for other uninvolved Arab states to join only because they are linked to other countries.”
“The Gulf-Gulf conflict is affecting the Arab League. The fact that the League member countries are taking sides with the two parties of the conflict, then in case one of these parties decided to return, it will bring the embassies of other countries with it due to pressure exercised by the axis.”
Therefore, “this will result into attempts to promote for the return of the regime to the Arab League in order to give legitimacy to this openness and suggest the presence of the Arab role in the region.”
However, Syrian oppositionist and member of the “Cairo Platform”, Firas al-Khalidi, has a different perspective. He believes that the Iranian presence in Syria will hinder the return of the regime to the Arab League, especially that the Arab countries seeking to restore relations with the Syrian regime, justified this as meant to “encourage the regime to get out of the Iranian nestle”.
“Even those who said so are fully aware that the regime and its current structure fully comply with Iran and all its dictates and ambitions in Syria and the region,” al-Khalidi said.
The argument justifying “Iranian Presence”
Al-Khalidi believes that the submission of the regime to Iran since 2012, “gradually put it under the full hegemony of the Iranian project, for Iran has an expansion plan which cannot be executed only by provoking sedition, destabilizing the neighboring countries and the region and promoting terrorism.”
However, researcher Sasha al-Alou has a different opinion. He believes that talking about Arabs confronting the Iranian presence in Syria is nothing but a pretext. He stated that some other reasons can justify the change in the attitude of some Arab countries towards the Syrian regime.
Al-Alou added that “this shift which occurred at the level of some Arab countries’ attitude can be linked to the American withdrawal, on one hand, and the increase of Turkish influence, both politically and militarily, over the Syrian file, on the other. This situation is actually troubling the UAE and Saudi Arabia.”
According to al-Alou the two factors he has previously mentioned identify al-Assad as the only point of access, “under the pretext of confronting the Turkish and Iranian role and through revitalizing the Arab role.”
On the other hand, these countries are aware that the regime severing ties with Iran is almost impossible, especially with the presence of Bashar al-Assad. However, the Gulf states want to be present with the regime within the conflict of axes, as well as the Russians in the region, following the changes on the ground and those which have occurred in the Syrian file at the regional and international levels “.
Al-Alou said that “the fight against Iranian influence has turned into an abused concept just like counter terrorism. This concept gave the Arab countries a pretext under which they can be open to Israel before al-Assad’s regime and settle issues in the region before the Syrian file.”
Political loss to the opposition
The UAE, the sponsor of Syria in the context of revitalizing Arab relations with the regime, had previously supported Syria’s political opposition. However, according to the researcher Sasha al-Alou, this support, “will be redirected towards the regime, which may entail redirecting financial support to the reconstruction projects promoted for by the regime, in return for encouraging it to join the Arab League again, and try to reinforce al-Assad’s position at the Arab level. ”
“This is one of the sides al-Assad is making use of, for he considers old enemies as new friends in terms of purely personal interests. Russians are happy to break the regime’s political isolation, and are encouraging it. ”
Al-Alou links the regime’s military progress to accepting the Arabic rapprochement saying that “after closing the file of militarization, the regime needs a political solution that would break its regional isolation as well as an economic solution at the internal level. The various offers of the Gulf countries are luring to the Syrian regime, especially since it has not yet reaped the political benefits of its military progress.”
He went on saying that “this openness will be reflected on the rounds of negotiations between the regime and the opposition, most notably the Constitutional Committee, as the opposition will engage itself into negotiations without having Arab support. This shall weaken its position, support the Russian standpoint, and contribute to Astana and Geneva.
Mechanism of revitalizing membership at the League…
“Easy” Arab conditions encumbered to consensus and “Geneva”
A regard to unofficial Arab initiatives to revitalize the Syrian role in the Arab League, several questions have been raised about the mechanism enabling Syria’s return amid the Arab divergent attitudes toward the return and the internal laws governing the “fateful” decisions of the Arab League.
The decision to freeze Syria’s role in 2011 required the regime to abide by a set of obligations and implement them in order to return it to the League, mainly committing to the terms of the “Arab Peace Initiative”.
From the other side, Egyptian Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukry, has recently spoken about other kinds of commitment, which were not implemented by Arabs but rather Westerners. He called on the Syrian regime to abide by the outcome of the Geneva negotiations and the 2254 Security Council Resolution about Syria’s return to the political scene.
“Geneva” dominating the Arab decision
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry stated during a press conference with his Moroccan counterpart, Nasser Bourita, on January 8, that the return of the Syrian regime to the League depends on reaching a political solution that only abides by the outputs of “Geneva” and goes under the auspices of the United Nations. He eliminated the need for any Russian, Turkish, and Iranian contribution to reaching such a political solution in Syria under the so-called “Astana” and “Sochi”.
The 2254 Security Council resolution, which consists of 16 items, is the main benchmark the Syrian opposition is relying on to reach a political solution. The fourth paragraph provides for supporting a political process led by Syria, facilitated by the United Nations, and establishing a credible, inclusive and non-sectarian rule.
The Egyptian minister also expressed his support for free and fair elections under a new Constitution, within 18 months under the auspices of the United Nations.
Sameh Shoukry’s statement is the first clear Arab position that speaks of the conditions for the return of Syria outside the framework of the “Arab initiative” and regardless of the Arab political positions towards the Syrian regime.
Dr. Abdulqader Nanaa, a Syrian political researcher specializing in Arab affairs, said during an interview with Enab Baladi that Shoukry’s statements were “face-saving” in case the Arab League could not decide whether to bring Syria back or not.
Nanaa said that the commitment of the Syrian regime to the outcome of “Geneva” indicates a US reservation on its return, especially as Washington supports Geneva and rejects any other talks. He added: “It seems that Washington aims to postpone the issue of Syria’s return to the Arab League a bit until making more comprehensive compromises. So, Sameh Shukri’s comments come to find a way out later.”
The researcher in Arab Legal Affairs pointed out that there is an implicit decision in most Arab countries to support the return of the Syrian regime to the Arab League, but they seek to find an Arab role to launch a political course in Syria under al-Assad regime, in accordance with international terms of reference and in line with the expectations of the Arab regimes.
What about the laws of the Arab League?
With regard to the internal laws governing the freezing or activation of the membership of any State in the Arab League, the Charter of the League states that such “fateful” decisions require the unanimous consent of all Member States.
Article 7 of the Charter states that “the unanimous decision of the Council shall be binding on all Member States of the Arab League, and what the Council decides by majority is binding on the countries which accept it only.”
Article 18 states that “any State that does not fulfill the duties of this Charter shall be separated from the League by a decision of the unanimous consensus of States other than the State referred to” (i.e. which does not fulfill its duties), and under this article Syria’s membership in the Arab League was frozen.
According to researcher Abdulqader Nanaa, the legal form of the Charter of the Arab League, requires the approval of all Arab countries to reactivate the membership of Syria in the League, as this concerns the League as a whole and it is not a matter for each country separately, in other words, Article 18 is more appropriate here to approach the legal situation, as he put it.
Syria has been removed without consensus and its return decision can be taken without consensus
Since the removal of Syria from the Arab League did not get the consensus of all Member States, as it was opposed by Lebanon and Yemen at the time, and entered into force according to the political balances in the League, Nanaa believes that it is possible to take a decision of restoring membership without consensus also under the same balances.
He pointed out that the Charter of the League is not purely legal, but it can be interpreted according to the general trend within the League. There are important precedents, most notably the Arab League’s decision to approve US-international military operations to enter Kuwait and attack Iraq in 1990-1991, despite some states’ objections and others’ abstentions.
When politics dominates the Charter
Regardless of the “fragile” laws in force in the Arab League, Dr. Abdulqader Nanaa believes that the political positions of the Arab countries, if they are similar, may dominate the charter of the Arab League and any decision it takes.
He pointed out that if most of the Arab countries adopted an individual political decision to restore Syria’s membership in the Arab League, especially the main member countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, according to the precedents and mechanisms of the league work, the return of Syria will only require a decision of the Tunis summit this year, so that al-Assad can participate in the next summit, according to Nanaa.
The process may take place regardless of any objections, which may drop the unanimity requirement, i.e. regardless of Qatar’s current objection, in return for the approval of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other countries “which push to restore the regime”, including Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria, Palestine, Sudan, and Jordan.
Here, the resolution is approved by the Arab League Council, then passed to the general vote, and passed in the event of unanimity, a consensus that can be tolerated, according to precedents which happened in the history of the League decisions.
A cold Syrian deal hides behind it a double victory
Despite its cold handling of the expected return to the Arab League or the restoration of relations with Arab countries, the Syrian regime may gain interests and benefits, since it is interested and beneficiary and considers returning to the League a kind of victory. However, the Syrian regime keeps a distance from the atmosphere of pressure and demand for return, so that it will not register a diplomatic and political defeat in the event that it fails to return.
In case of its return, the Syrian regime will promote such an event as a clear political victory. Indeed, there is a strategy and plan to present the return as Syria’s victory and the Arab countries’ urge to the regime to return to the Arab League, which is the same way of thought of the regime in all other files which require no concessions at all.
One of the objectives of this strategy is to establish points that the official Syrian position was more accurate, and that the regimes that dealt with the Syrian regime in this way are the ones that were wrong. Thus, the regime registers a victory over the Syrian people and the revolution on the one hand, and on the other Arab countries that opposed the Syrian regime, especially the Gulf States.
On the other hand, there are certain benefits to both sides. In the Arab League, there are Arab regimes that wish the return of the Syrian regime, such as Sudan, which is witnessing demonstrations against Omar al-Bashir, the Gulf confrontations between Qatar and the UAE and Saudi Arabia and their role in the Yemeni war, as well as Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination case and the role of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and human rights violations in el-Sisi regime. These files push countries to reject any Arab siege or boycott of a country because of human rights violations, violations against journalists, enforced disappearance of detainees, or violence.
Therefore, there is mutual interest. The regime is victorious and tries to impose some diplomatic relations. The re-opening of the Arab embassies in Syria paves the way for the Western countries to overcome this line and break the isolation and siege and restore the Western relations at the level of diplomats, missions, and embassies to reconnect with the regime.
A fundamental part of the activities of civil and human rights organizations should focus on preventing the restoration of relations as they previously were. If the request is that these relations return, whether we like it or not, they should at least be under certain conditions and take into consideration the interests of the Syrian victims. For instance, there should be a resolution in the case of the detainees. Also, the conditions for the reconstruction of destroyed areas and the restitution of property to its owners should be set, especially in those controlled by the Government and prepared to be sold in an unfair way that excludes the original inhabitants of the region.
Concern… condemnation… sanctions… and initiative
Arab League positions of Syria
The circumstances and data on the Syrian file turned upside down after eight years of the outbreak of the revolution, and changed the political visions and positions of the countries that were involved in developments, whether foreign or Arab. The statements of concern, sanctions and condemnation issued against the Syrian regime against the backdrop of repression of peaceful demonstrations and the killing of civilians are no longer heard. Instead, the League has taken steps to re-normalize and “forget” what has been done in the past.
In light of the steps taken by some Arab countries such as the UAE and Bahrain to restore diplomatic relations with the Syrian regime, and talk about a close return to the Arab League under the invitations of several countries, it is necessary to review the League’s decisions regarding Syria and the timeline of the positions taken since 2011 until today.
Enab Baladi has worked on monitoring the data and decisions issued by the League regarding the Syrian file from 2011 to 2016, which ranged from anxiety to condemnation and sanctions, and then the 13-item Arab initiative, granted to Damascus, reaching “irresolute” positions, which changed with the change of map on the ground and the general political situation.
On 27 August 2017, the Arab League issued its first statement on developments in Syria under the number 148 issued by its Ministerial Council at its unusual session in the capital Cairo, in which it expressed its “concerns and disturbance” over the developments in the Syrian scene that caused the death of civilians.
The Arab League stressed in the statement on “the need for putting an end to the killings, calling for the rational dealing with events before it is too late, and respecting the Syrian people’s rights and their aspirations for political, economic and social reforms,” in a speech that implied a preliminary warning of an escalation in case the Syrian regime continues to violate the Syrian people’s rights.
The demonstrations against al-Assad’s regime continued and the killing and targeting of the demonstrators did not stop, in addition to the arrests and torturing methods, by the security branches that started to appear on the scene on a daily basis. The Arab League has thus escalated its speech and issued the so-called “Arab League initiative.”
The initiative included 13 items that the Secretary-General of the Arab League at that time, Nabil Elaraby, delivered to the capital Damascus. The initiative most notably included a call to the Syrian government to stop violence against civilians, compensate the affected people, repair of all forms of damage, as well as releasing the political detainees or those detained under charges of participating in the protests.
The initiative also called on the regime to separate the army from political and civil life and turn itself into a protector of a transformation and reform process, as well as the formation of a transitional national unity government headed by a Prime Minister who would be accepted by the opposition forces involved in the dialogue. The formed government’s mission would include the holding of open democratic elections to election observers.
The Arab League’s items had not been suitable with the Syrian regime’s interests despite its formal approval. The regime had not stopped committing violence crimes and escalated its security campaigns against demonstrators in all Syrian regions, especially in Daraa and Rif Dimashq governorates.
In light of the regime’s non-compliance with the items, the Arab League had held several ministerial meetings in September and October 2011, during which it issued resolutions that stressed on the need to stop the violence crimes committed by the Syrian regime, and formed a ministerial committee to communicate with figures from the Syrian regime to stop violence and reject military manifestations in the cities.
The 12th of November 2011 was a major turning point regarding the Arab League’s position against the Syrian regime, as it suspended the participation of the delegations of the Syrian government in its meetings and all its organizations and bodies.
The suspension decision included the signing of economic and political sanctions against the Syrian government, and the calling of all opposition factions to meet up at the headquarters of the Arab League to agree on a unified vision for the transitional period.
The sanctions, which were passed on 27 November 2011, set out a ban on the travel of Syrian dignitaries and officials to Arab countries, the suspension of dealings with the Central Bank, the stopping of trading operations with the Syrian government, freezing the financial assets of the regime, as well as freezing projects by Arab countries on Syrian territories.
Demand to step down… Giving the lead to the opposition
During the five months that followed the issuance of the sanctions and the Arab League’s summoning of the Syrian opposition, the ministerial meetings did not stop, during which the Arab League demanded the Syrian regime to stop the violence and killing crimes and abide by the items of the Arab League initiative. The meetings also discussed the opening of donations for the Syrian people as well as the developing of an Arab mechanism to provide aids.
In June 2012, the Council of the Arab League held a ministerial meeting during which several decisions were issued, most notably the condemnation of the Houla massacre that was committed by al-Assad’s forces. The Council also called on the Security Council to carry out its duties to protect civilians. In addition, the Council decided to demand the administrations of Arabsat satellite and the Egyptian satellite company Nilesat to take what is necessary to stop the broadcasting of official and unofficial Syrian TV channels.
As part of its continued follow-ups, the Council of the Arab League issued a resolution in July 2012, in which it called on Bashar al-Assad to step down so as to “stop the blood shedding of the Syrian regime,”. The resolution also called for the formation of a Syrian transitional government under a consensus which would include the opposition forces inside and outside Syria, the Free Syrian Army, and the de facto national authority.
Subsequently, the Council of the Arab League increased its escalation language against the Syrian regime, and proceeded to put forward terms consistent with the Syrian people’s vision in the change it had first called to, such as the derogatory term “Shabiha” as a description of the pro-regime combatants.
In late 2012, the Council of the Arab League welcomed the formation of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, and thanked the State of Qatar for the role it had played at that time to form a “uniting coalition of all segments of the Syrian people.” The Council also considered that “the coalition” is the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people and asked it to form an executive body to occupy Syria’s seat in the League until the holding of elections that would lead to a government.
Syria’s seat in the Arab League has been empty since 2011 after the freezing of the membership of Damascus, except for the summit that was held in Doha in March 2013, when the President of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces at that time, Moaz al-Khatib, occupied the seat, and delivered a speech before the leaders and Heads of delegations of Arab countries. The “revolution” flag with the three stars was then raised inside the main room of the Conference.
Condemnation of the chemical massacre in al-Ghouta
In the monitoring process that characterized the decisions of the Arab League, we can notice that it has been gradually escalating and reaching in 2013 the level of condemnation of the chemical massacre that was inflicted by al-Assad’s forces in Eastern Ghouta.
During a meeting in August 2013, the Council of the Arab League condemned the massacre al-Assad’s forces had committed using internationally banned weapons, and held the Syrian regime fully responsible for the attack. The Council also demanded that all those involved in the attack be brought to international trials.
In the last months of 2013 and the beginning of 2014, the Arab League Council also issued resolutions supporting the Geneva negotiating process, which the Syrian opposition entered into, and which establishes a transitional governing body with full executive powers.
Post-2015 turning point
In 2015, the Syrian file has witnessed a turning point with the Russian intervention backing the Syrian regime in its military operations against the opposition factions on the one hand, and with ISIS’s intervention on the other.
In the first official Arab League response to the Russian air strikes inside Syria, Deputy Secretary-General Ambassador Ahmed Ben Helli said: “I do not think that the foreign military action in Syria, whether that of Russia or of other western counties, will be enough to resolve the fate of the ongoing war there, and to eliminate the terrorist groups, including ISIS.”
Ben Helli added to Egyptian media outlets, including Youm7, “we should work on concerted Arab, regional and international efforts to prompt the conflicting parties in Syria, the government and the armed opposition, to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis and save this important Arab country from collapse, division, and destructive chaos.”
The Arab League did not take a firm stand against the Russian bombings, which targeted residential areas, whether in Eastern Ghouta or Idlib and the southern region of Syria. Its decisions were limited to condemnation, disapproval, and the call to “preserve the Syrian people’s blood.”
The Council of the Arab League issued several resolutions at the summit of Mauritania, in July 2016, which overall stressed on “a Syrian sovereignty over the Golan and the Syrian government’s demand to restore it.”
The Council stressed in its resolution at that time on “respecting the Syrian people’s aspirations and welcoming international efforts to resume negotiations between the Syrian regime and the opposition factions aimed at forming a transitional governing body.”
The Council’s resolutions also included the condemnation of the military operations carried out by the Syrian regime and “terrorist groups,” including “ISIS and al-Nusra, which is affiliated to al-Qaeda.”
At the summit that was held in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott, most Arab countries refused the Syrian opposition’s occupation of Syria’s seat, and there had been different opinions about the seat at that time.