Written by Minahil Nawaz
In December 2018, the Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir became the first leader of an Arab League member state to visit Syria in eight years. In addition, just a few days ago, the embassy of the United Arab Emirates reopened in Damascus as well, signaling a desire to rebuild relations with Syria. In light of these diplomatic developments, and according to recent reports from The Guardian, it is expected that the Arab League will move to readmit Syria in 2019.
Though the US is pressuring Riyadh and Cairo to hold off on such a vote, there is reported to be a growing consensus among the 22 states of the League that Syria should be readmitted. Syria has been considered a pariah state internationally for many years now, and if it were to be accepted by the global community again, the process would likely begin from its own geographical region i.e. the Arab world.
When Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir visited Syria, there was heavy media coverage of this meeting, with images of Bashir and Assad shaking hands and walking down a red carpet surfacing all over media outlets. The visit was widely seen as a gesture of friendship not only from Sudan, but also from Saudi Arabia, a country that has strengthened its own ties with Sudan in recent years. According to an official press statement, the two leaders discussed the need to build “new principles for inter-Arab relations based on the respect of the sovereignty of countries and non-interference in internal affairs.” However, to many Sudanese opposition politicians, the move was just an attempt by two dictators to consolidate their hold on power further.
Moreover, the reopening of the embassy of the United Arab Emirates in Damascus can also be seen as a prelude to further Saudi diplomacy. This is the first time a Gulf country has re-established formal relations with Syria since 2012. In a statement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the UAE said that “the move underscores the UAE government’s keenness to restore relations between the two brotherly countries to their normal course.” Restoration of such ties could also potentially entail new funding for reconstruction projects in the nation, considering the US continues to isolate Syria and is even withdrawing troops from Syria’s north-east now. The US expects Saudi Arabia to fund the reconstruction efforts, but according to estimates, nearly $400 billion will be needed for reconstruction of the war-torn country.
Following the reopening of the UAE embassy in Damascus, Bahrain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that “work is continuing” at its own embassy in Syria as well. In December, the first commercial flight from Syria to Tunisia in seven years took off. Furthermore, Jordan has reopened the Nassib border crossing with Syria to people and goods, after being closed for three years. The Nassib crossing is a route that used to carry billions of dollars in trade for both countries, and the move is expected to boost local economies. Israel has also reopened the Quneitra crossing on its occupied Golan Heights front with Syria, a crossing that had been closed for over five years. Over the past several months, Egyptian state-run media outlets as well as government officials have called for Syria’s reinstatement in the Arab League.
In 2011, Syria was expelled from the League due to its brutal suppression of the peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad. At an emergency session in Cairo in November 2011, the League decided that Assad had failed to comply with the stipulations of the peace agreement from earlier that month: he did not withdraw government troops and tanks from the northern regions of Syria, resulting in battles between security forces, armed opposition groups, and further civilian casualties.
The failure of this deal was damaging not only to Syria, but to the Arab League as well, an organization that has often been unable to prevent the violence of the revolutions that have spread across the Middle East. With the Syrian regime committing crimes against humanity, and with no signs of an end to such violence in sight, the Arab League decided to expel Syria from the organization, in the hopes of increasing international pressure on the regime.
However, earlier in April 2018, the Secretary General of the Arab League, Egyptian diplomat Ahmed Aboul Gheit, called the decision to suspend Syria from the League a “hasty” one. In November 2018, the Executive Committee of the Arab Parliament, an Arab League auxiliary, also called for the Arab League to readmit Syria. This may be part of a broader Arab plan to bring Syria back into the folds of Arab diplomacy, remove it from Tehran’s influence and thus isolate Iran in the region.
The Arab League is now set to meet in Tunisia in March 2019, where the Egyptian delegation is expected to call for Syria’s reinstatement.