In 2011, the Arab League suspended Syria’s membership due to the severe oppression of demonstrations by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Three years later, in 2013, the Syrian opposition was granted the right to represent Syria by the Arab League. This was a significant development. However, the situation took another turn in 2015 when Russia, at the request of the Assad regime, sent troops to Syria. With the support of Iran and Russia, the Assad regime managed to regain control over a significant portion of the country.
Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan had previously supported the Syrian opposition with funds and weapons in an attempt to remove Bashar al-Assad. However, after Assad regained control, these nations found it necessary to revise their policies towards him. The normalization of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, mediated by China in March, has accelerated the process of normalization that Arab nations were considering initiating with Syria.
The Arab League’s decision to readmit Syria, largely driven by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, marks a significant shift in regional dynamics. This move is seen as a diplomatic effort to normalize relations with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, a stark contrast to previous attempts to unseat him through military means. The failure of these attempts, coupled with Syria’s increasing alignment with Iran, has prompted Arab nations to revise their strategies. The focus has now shifted from military intervention to diplomatic engagement, with the aim of drawing Syria away from Iran’s influence.
However, the Arab League’s decision is not without opposition. Qatar, for instance, has invested heavily in reshaping the Middle East and North Africa, promoting the Muslim Brotherhood’s leading role in the region. The rise of radical groups in Syria, supported by over $200 billion in funding for training and arming, led to Syria seeking assistance from its allies, notably Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia. This alliance effectively crushed the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence in Syria, leading to Qatar’s resistance to Syria’s readmission to the Arab League.
Moreover, Morocco and Kuwait also oppose Syria’s readmission due to longstanding political disputes and ideological differences. Despite these challenges, the Arab League’s decision underscores a broader regional trend towards stabilization and economic planning for the post-oil era. This shift is motivated by the rising influence of powers like China and Russia, who offer an alternative to the United States’ hard power approach in the region.
In a significant turn of events, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad landed in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on May 18, 2023, to participate in the Arab League Summit. This marks his first appearance at such an event in over a decade, following the regime change war that erupted in 2011 with the aim of removing him from power. The fact that Assad is now being welcomed back into the Arab League is a clear indication of the shifting dynamics in the region.
The war in Syria, often referred to as a “mini–World War,” saw the involvement of over 110 countries against Syria. However, the country’s resilience, coupled with the support of allies such as Hezbollah, Iran, Russia, and China, has led to a change in the balance of power on the global stage. The intervention of Russia in 2015, in particular, has been a game-changer, not only strengthening Syria’s position but also bolstering Russia’s standing internationally.
A return to the Arab League may help Syria break its political-diplomatic isolation. However, its impact on Syria’s reconstruction process may be limited. Expecting Arab investment funds to pour into Syria after this summit may be too optimistic. So far, we cannot say that the Arab League has been a very effective mechanism for solving problems among Arabs. Not counting emergency meetings, the Arab League has held 32 summits in 80 years. In 2011, during the Arab Spring demonstrations, no summit was held. At the Baghdad Summit in March 2012, an initiative was developed to find a solution to the crisis in Syria. Together with the UN Secretary-General, contacts were held with Damascus. Despite Assad’s steps towards reforms, the Arab League failed to take ownership of its own initiative on Syria and failed to implement its own road map.
In conclusion, despite the failure of the Arab League to resolve the problems among the Arabs so far, Syria’s rejoining the Arab League can be considered as an important victory and diplomatic gain for Bashar al-Assad in terms of the Arab countries’ recognition that Assad remains in power in Syria and is the leader of Syria. The most important result of this summit is that it restored Assad’s legitimacy in the Arab world.
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