Arab states conceded and normalized; What does Syrian regime offer in return?

Leaders of Arab states accompanied by the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, prior to the Arab summit meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia - May 19, 2023 (Reuters)

Leaders of Arab states accompanied by the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, prior to the Arab summit meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia - May 19, 2023 (Reuters)


Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli

The head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, has returned to his former seat in the Arab League, despite the fact that the reasons for excluding the regime from the League 12 years ago have not disappeared. Rather, new obstacles have emerged for his return, including the relationship with Iran and its proxies in the region, the trade in Captagon drugs, and its export to Jordan and other Gulf countries.

Politicians and experts spoke before the summit about working according to the step-by-step principle, according to which al-Assad returned to the Arab fold, as the Arabs gave up the principle of isolating the Syrian regime, waiting for concessions on its part, with fears of its non-compliance with it.

Big chasm

The leaders of some Arab countries welcomed al-Assad to the summit on May 19, after he had been a pariah for years.

A step that sought to reintegrate the regime regionally despite the objections of its allies in the West, highlights the stark gap between the United States and some of its closest Middle Eastern partners on an issue that once united them, according to The Washington Post.

The gap that the American newspaper spoke about was considered by Nader al-Khalil, a fellow researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, to be very large among all the parties present, and considered that al-Assad tried during his speech at the summit to pressure the Arab parties to reduce their demands even though they are waiting for a concession from him in exchange for returning him to the Arab fold.

The researcher added that the summit witnessed the usual repetition in its content, with the exception of some voices that called from afar for the implementation of UN Resolution No. 2254, which provides for a political solution and a transitional phase in Syria.

Al-Khalil said that the coming period will witness separate bilateral political paths with regard to the Syrian file, as the Arabs have not yet adopted one clear path. On the other hand, the regime cannot make concessions that may lead to the end of its existence.

The researcher believes that Arab countries are looking today, through their relationship with the Syrian regime, for their individual interests, such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, for example, in the Captagon smuggling file, and Algeria in the Polisario issue.

As part of the diplomatic efforts led by Saudi Arabia, led by its Crown Prince, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Arab countries are planning to implement the initiative to “encourage refugees to return, and persuade Western powers to ease sanctions on the disgraced regime,” according to a report by the Financial Times published after the summit.

According to the report, the plan was discussed at the “highest levels” in the United Nations, according to two well-informed sources whom it did not name, but they also said that “internal divisions” appeared over the plan due to its dependence on security guarantees from Damascus, and the possibility of encouraging the forcible return of some refugees.

There is a point of view that the government in Syria is not honest and not serious, but the only way to test this seriousness is through this meaningful process; otherwise, how will you be able to test it?

Arab diplomat to The Financial Times

The political and strategic researcher at Al-Ahram Center for Studies, Karam Saeed, told Enab Baladi that the Syrian regime seeks to exploit the modern Arab openness as much as possible in an attempt to address its weak regional immunity.

In the future, the regime may respond to what Arab diplomats seek to find solutions to regarding the Syrian issue, but in the end, this response depends on the effectiveness of countries with military influence in Syria, such as Iran and Russia.

“Zero solution”

The issue of making concessions on the part of the Syrian regime remains what can be expected after the crystallization of the way Arab leaders dealt with Damascus during the past few months, as they warmly received al-Assad during the five minutes that were granted to each of them during their speeches at the opening session.

Al-Khalil believes that the possibility of bringing about a radical change in the political map with regard to Syria is far-fetched, given the current circumstances, especially since al-Assad started his speech from his newly restored seat at the summit, attacking other countries.

The researcher stressed that the Syrian regime will not make concessions that might lead to its demise because it believes in the concept of a “zero solution.”

The Assad regime is not ready to make any concessions, given that it did not make concessions in 2015 when it was at its weakest in terms of military control over the land, so why would it make them now, according to the Omran Center researcher.

He added that the regime’s strategy relies on the principle of “procrastination, playing on time and misleading.” Although al-Assad spoke during his speech at the summit about the principle of “collective action,” he is far from this concept, and therefore the next steps depend on individual Arab initiatives.

Al-Khalil continued that the stalemate will continue and no practical results will appear until a regional consensus is reached on a total solution to the Syrian issue, and this consensus is still in a very slow and unclear stage.

The researcher bases his opinion on what the Financial Times said in its report, as it quoted Arab diplomats (which it did not name), that they are discussing their plans with Western powers, but they will not press for sanctions relief until they see progress in the file.

West stance of al-Assad not clear

Instead of protesting the signs of Arab moves against the US-sanctioned Syrian regime, Barbara Leaf, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, said in an interview in mid-April, “We advise our friends and partners in the region that they should get something in return for participating with al-Assad.”

The change from the concept of objection to dealing with the Syrian regime to a corresponding condition was not limited to the Americans only but rather came in the words of the German Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, prior to her visit to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, when she said that normalization with the regime must be linked to clear conditions although Germany was rejecting it, according to the German Press Agency (DPA).

Coinciding with turning a blind eye to normalization with the Syrian regime and contents itself with repeating the same statement, “We will not normalize relations with al-Assad, and we will not support normalization with him.” Washington is waiting for the launch of a new penal code that again restricts the regime and affects those normalizing with it.

Sam Heller, a researcher at the Century International Center for Research and International Policy, told Enab Baladi that the US sanctions recently put on the table do not necessarily become a reality or are actually implemented and may be subject to some amendments later.

The expert in Syrian affairs added that it is not really clear what the sanctions would look like if they were introduced as a law or what they might change on the ground.

The Beirut-based analyst believes that Washington cannot differentiate between matters related to the Syrian file and its interests with its allies from the Arab states.

Shy presence of Resolution 2254

During the Arab summit, a number of representatives of Arab countries celebrated al-Assad’s presence at the summit for the first time since the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011, while the speeches of some representatives were limited to welcoming the return of Syria without specifically mentioning al-Assad.

With the exception of Egypt and Kuwait, the leaders and representatives of the Arab countries present at the summit did not address UN Resolution 2254, which lays out a roadmap for the political transition process in Syria.

The Egyptian researcher, Karam Saeed, believes in the context of Cairo’s talk about Resolution 2254 that Egypt came to the summit based on the necessity of upholding the “national discourse” and consolidating the principle of political settlements in the Arab region.

Saeed added that Egypt is interested in the possibility of involving the United Nations and international actors in any political settlement that may occur in the Syrian file, and the mention of the UN resolution by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi is inseparable from these contexts.

In light of the regional tensions taking place in the region between China and the United States and other international interests, it is necessary for Egypt to focus on dimensions that may preserve the territorial integrity of Arab countries, including Syria, according to Saeed.

On November 12, 2011, the Arab League suspended the participation of delegations of the Syrian regime in its meetings and all its affiliated organizations and agencies eight months after the start of the Syrian revolution and the opposition’s demands to freeze the regime’s membership.

Ten years

At the Arab summit in Doha in 2013, the former Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, invited, during the opening of the summit, the former president of the opposition’s National Coalition, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, and the then head of the Syrian Interim Government, Ghassan Hitto, and the rest of the members of the opposition delegation to occupy the seat of Syria and raise the flag of independence adopted by the Syrian opposition.

The seat itself was not occupied by the opposition for a long time, and its presence gradually disappeared for reasons that were not clear, and the seat remained empty for years.

Ten years later, al-Assad returned to occupy the same seat after the opposition lost it, speaking of the need for Arab unity to confront Western challenges.



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