Where do Arab states stand on normalizing relations with Syria?

The head of the Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad and the UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed in Damascus, November 2021 (Syrian Presidency)

The head of the Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad and the UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed in Damascus, November 2021 (Syrian Presidency)

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Enab Baladi – Diana Rahima

As the next Arab League summit scheduled in March 2022 approaches, Arab countries’ positions towards normalization with the Syrian regime remain divergent.

The regime’s membership in the Arab League was suspended in November 2011 due to its failure in ending the bloodshed caused by the brutal government crackdown on popular protests that erupted in the same year.    

The phone call between the Jordanian King Abdullah II and the regime’s president Bashar al-Assad on 3 October encouraged some hesitant Arab countries to reinvigorate relations with al-Assad. The call was the first such communication since 2011. 

The visit by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Foreign Affairs Minister, Abdullah bin Zayed, to Damascus on 9 November and his meeting with al-Assad stepped up Arab normalization of ties with the regime.

On 10 November, the Algerian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ramtane Lamamra, whose country is hosting the upcoming Arab League summit in March, stated that Algeria is looking forward to reaching a consensus to return Syria to the Arab League.

“Algeria stresses that time has come for Syria’s return to the Arab League without any external interference in its domestic affairs,” Lamamra added.

In 2020, the former Algerian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sabri Boukadoum, called for an end to the freezing of Syria’s membership in the Arab League. 

Boukadoum said during a press conference with his Mauritanian counterpart, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, that Algeria calls for “the acceptance of Syria’s return to the arms of the Arab League.”

Qatar against the normalization of ties with al-Assad

As for the Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it declared no normalizing ties with al-Assad’s regime.

Qatar’s Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said at a joint news conference with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington, “Qatar is not considering normalizing relations with Syria and hopes other countries will be discouraged from taking further steps with President Bashar al-Assad’s government.”

Egypt on the sidelines

Meanwhile, the Egyptian government seems to be on the sidelines towards ending the regime’s isolation, as Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry denied plans for an Egyptian visit to Damascus, similar to the UAE visit.

Shoukry said during a press conference in Washington on 10 November that there are no plans for a visit by an Egyptian delegation headed by the Minister for Foreign Affairs to Syria for the time being.

He added, “We expressed the Egyptian position on the situation in Syria at the meeting with the Syrian Foreign Minister, Faisal Mekdad, and we look with great pain at the destruction of Syria with terrorist elements taking over Syrian territory.”

Shoukry pointed out that his meeting with Mekdad was to help Syria get out of its crisis, review the regime government’s vision, and deliver a message on the importance of fully implementing the resolutions of international legitimacy relating to developments in Syria.

At a news conference with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Moscow on 4 October, the Egyptian Foreign Minister said that Egypt is keen to help Syria out of its crisis and considers it an integral part of the Arab national security.

Shoukry added that his country awaits the measures the Syrian government will take within the framework of the political solution and humanitarian situation in Syria.

Would Egypt take the lead?

Jordanian strategic expert Dr. Amer al-Sabayla told Enab Baladi that the Egyptian regime could not be looked towards to take any initiative or position that requires momentum in diplomatic work at the international and European levels in particular.

Al-Sabayla added that the Egyptian regime, which came to power by the 2013 coup d’état, is still trying to legitimize its rule; therefore, it cannot adopt positions that would put it in confrontation with the United States (US) or other European countries. The regime in Egypt is not willing to support another internationally unaccepted regime.

The Arab League’s position towards the regime is similar to that of Egypt, as it cannot be relied upon in the absence of a real and balanced role for two core member states, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, according to al-Sabayla.

Arab countries have variable trends towards the Syrian regime, the strategic expert said, adding that the UAE’s calculations on the Syrian file are the most delicate. The UAE refuses to acknowledge the Arab Spring revolutions and their outcomes, especially in countries where the Muslim Brotherhood is involved. Moreover, the UAE is going through a stage of political enmity with Turkey and shapes its positions in Syria in line with its foreign policies. 

Al-Sabayla additionally added that the absence of an international political solution in Syria had paved the way for some countries to engage themselves in the Syrian file, trying to market their vision of a solution. 

He added that there is no clear Arab insight into restoring ties with the Syrian regime, but some recent moves were taken towards this end. Some countries are trying to provoke Washington, especially after the end of the administration of former US President Donald Trump. These countries are mending links with the regime without the US permission to do so.  

According to al-Sabayla, the failure of the Syrian opposition; the persistence of the crisis for over ten years; and the threatening conditions in Lebanon and Iraq have caused some Arab countries to consider the necessity of closing the Syrian file to avoid a much deeper crisis that would affect the entire region. 

Bashar al-Assad, the Saddam Hussein of the 1990s

Iraqi researcher and expert in international relations, Dr. Omar Abdulsattar, told Enab Baladi that Syria in the third decade of the 21st century is the Iraq of the last decade of the 20th century, after the liberation of Kuwait. Today, Bashar al-Assad shares the same status as former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein during the 1990s, under Western sanctions and threats of Israeli strikes. In addition, the conditions in Syria after 2011 bring to mind the situation of Iraq after invading Kuwait. 

Abdulsattar added that al-Assad, his regime, and the ruling Ba’ath Socialist Party would eventually come to an end, but countries have to deal with what is currently on the ground. These countries are motivated by national interest, and Abdullah bin Zayed’s visit to Damascus is an example of this policy of political realism.   

He added that Arab nations fall into two sections, the first of which has normalized relations with Israel previously (Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan), while the second section normalized ties with Israel during the time of Donald Trump presidency, including Morocco, Sudan, the UAE, and Bahrain. 

The question is would Syria be the eighth country to normalize relations with Israel, particularly that Russia is sponsoring the normalization with Israel, Abdulsattar said.  

Abdulsattar did not rule out the possibility that Abdullah bin Zayed’s visit to Syria resulted from Russian-Emirati coordination rather than an American-Emirati one.

Abdulsattar linked Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s visit to the city of Sochi to Russian efforts to ensure Syria’s normalization with Israel and to the bombing operations that have increased lately. 

Syria’s normalization of relations with Israel could be the reason for Iran’s exit from Syria, according to Abdulsattar.  

Arab countries against the normalization with Israel are close to Iran, which occupies al-Ahwaz and three Arab islands (Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs) and has a great influence over four Arab capitals besides the Gaza Strip, while Israel occupies Palestine. Encouraged by other Arab countries and political interests, the regime is likely to be among countries normalizing relations with Israel, which would force Iran to exit Syria in one way or another, Abdulsattar said.

The Arab League and al-Assad’s regime

Political researcher at Omran Center for Strategic Studies, Maan Talaa, told Enab Baladi that the return of al-Assad’s regime to the Arab League is merely a formality. 

He said the League does not have the geopolitical weight the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has and that the GCC is the entity running the region, not the Arab League or Egypt.

Talaa added that the current phase is not characterized by normalization but negotiations. Iran, for example, is negotiating with US President Joe Biden and Saudi Arabia. However, any negotiation with Iran would create chaos in the region. Iran used the Islamic State (IS) and the Houthi group cards before it signed the 2015 Lausanne Convention, so the question now is, what will Iran use in the Vienna negotiations or the Saudi talks in Muscat, Oman.

Talaa emphasized the need to differentiate between the position of the Arab countries and the League of Arab States towards the normalization with the Syrian regime. The League suspended the regime’s membership and called for the withdrawal of Arab ambassadors from Damascus. It also cooperated with the United Nations (UN) to appoint a joint special envoy to deal with the crisis in Syria.    

The Arab League took moves that necessitated a series of actions and issues linked to international resolutions against the regime, according to Talaa.

Today, the division between member states of the Arab League on the normalization of ties with the regime has become clearer due to recent moves by some countries and the shift of power in the Arab world. 

According to Talaa, countries wishing to restore ties with the regime will exert pressure on other countries to lead them in the same path and serve their own interests; however, this process is dependent on a group of factors related to the international interaction with the Syrian file. 

The next phase will witness moves on the road to normalizing relations with the Syrian regime, including technical communication through governments and intelligence and economic communication.

Five factors to normalizing relations with the Syrian regime

Talaa mentioned five factors pushing Arab countries to restore ties with the Syrian regime.

  • The Syrian crisis’ disruption of other countries’ economic interests due to Syria’s central geographical location, especially for Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt.  
  • The Syrian crisis’ outcomes, particularly the refugees and the pressures they create for other countries. 
  • The post-Arab Spring political climate, which forced a shift in traditional forces in the region, requiring Arab countries to engage with all influential regional actors that opposed the Arab Spring revolutions or their supporters.
  • The United States’ diminishing interest and gradual withdrawal from the region that the US no longer manages in a direct manner. This calls for the establishment of a new regional system in which the US is limitedly involved. 
  • The similarity of governing philosophy between most Arab countries and the Syrian regime in terms of the crackdown on democracy, the absence of individual freedoms, and the lack of political transition policies.

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