May 8, 2023

IntelBrief: Syria Returns to the Arab Fold

Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs via AP

Bottom Line up Front

  • A majority of Arab League foreign ministers convening in Cairo yesterday voted to return Syria to the forum after a 12-year absence, despite objections from some League members.
  • Several Arab states insisted on significant political concessions from the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad but faced growing momentum to readmit Damascus without binding commitments.
  • Syria’s return to the Arab fold was facilitated by the February 6 earthquake that affected Türkiye and northern Syria, as well as reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, a key Assad backer.
  • The economic benefits for Syria from the Arab League vote are likely to be limited because of U.S. policy, U.S. sanctions, and Assad’s refusal to alter key policies.

At a meeting yesterday in Cairo, all thirteen foreign ministers attending a gathering of the 22-member League of Arab States (Arab League) voted to readmit Syria to the organization after a 12-year membership suspension triggered by its military crackdown against a broad, nationwide uprising. The vote paves the way for Saudi Arabia to formally invite Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to the upcoming Arab League summit in the Kingdom scheduled for May 19. The foreign ministers’ decision immediately opens Syrian representatives to attend League meetings and participate in all its institutions. The vote largely removes the dispute over normalization with Syria from the agenda at the upcoming Arab summit, enabling leaders to focus on the crisis in Sudan, relations with Iran, Israeli-Palestinian clashes, and the ongoing civil conflict in Yemen.

The Arab League decision culminates a process of growing momentum to end Assad’s estrangement – a trend that began in 2018 with the Russian-backed restoration of Assad’s control over most of the Syrian population and approximately 60% of Syrian territory. The northwestern province of Idlib remains occupied by Assad’s political opponents. Much of south and northeastern Syria is under the sway of outside forces, including those of Iran, Türkiye, and the United States. Each outside power is partnered with local militias, including, in the case of the United States, Syrian Kurds. Israel does not place forces inside Syria but regularly strikes Iran-backed militias, military production facilities, and weapons shipments bound for Iran’s main ally, Lebanese Hezbollah. In 2018, some U.S. regional allies, particularly the United Arab Emirates (UAE), began to engage directly with the Assad regime, arguing that continuing Assad’s isolation only strengthened his dependence on Iran. The UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus that year, and the UAE foreign minister visited Damascus in 2021 – well ahead of the top diplomats of Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, that did not visit until the February 6, 2023 earthquake that struck southeastern Türkiye and northwestern Syria. That disaster stimulated further Arab opening to the Assad regime in the interests of demonstrating a humanitarian commitment to the Syrian people and strengthening the conflict-weakened institutions of the Syrian state, which clearly lacked the capacity to assist victims of the disaster sufficiently. In March, Assad’s drive to return to the Arab fold was strengthened significantly by Saudi Arabia’s decision to restore relations with Assad’s main regional backer, Iran. In April, subsequent to the Iran-Saudi rapprochement, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud visited Damascus for the first time in more than a decade, and the two countries restored their embassies and flights between them.

Yet, the Arab League decision to readmit Syria glosses over significant differences among the Arab states related to the issue of the normalization - essentially overruling objections to normalization by some League members. Nine of the 22 League members did not attend the Cairo meeting, likely to avoid being directly outvoted in their opposition to normalization with Assad. Jordan had sought significant concessions from the Assad regime in exchange for its readmission. Jordan had sought Syrian cooperation to curb trafficking in the illicit drug, Captagon, which has become a major revenue source for Assad family allies and elements of Syria’s military and security forces. Jordan has been the main export market for the drug. On May 1, Jordan hosted envoys from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, and Syria to develop a framework, dubbed the "Jordanian initiative," that would slowly bring Damascus back into the Arab fold. Amman's top diplomat said the meeting was the "beginning of an Arab-led political path" for a solution to the crisis and included a discussion of Syria’s humanitarian needs, the Captagon smuggling, and the refugee crisis from the Syrian civil war. However, the Jordanian Initiative seems to have been largely brushed aside by yesterday’s decision on readmission, which outlines no specific repercussions for Syria if it fails to address Arab demands. Final statements and commentary from the Cairo meeting refer only to vague Syrian “willingness to cooperate with” Arab governments to combat terrorism and drug smuggling and to gradually reach a political solution to the conflict, in line with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254. The Arab League decision also set up a communications committee consisting of Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq to follow up on developments.

The Arab League decision will disappoint Washington, which had recently shifted from adamant opposition to regional normalization of Syria to a more nuanced insistence that the Arab states obtain strict Syrian commitments in exchange for returning Assad to the Arab fold. U.S. leaders, as well as those of Israel, see fundamental political reform inside Syria as the only viable pathway to reducing the influence of Russia and Iran on the Syrian government. Some key regional allies of the United States, including Qatar and Kuwait, joined by Morocco, supported the U.S. position on Syria and opposed the Cairo decision, even if their representatives were not present to cast a dissenting vote. At the same time, Washington’s seemingly indispensable role in many aspects of regional security, and its ability to enforce global sanctions, give U.S. leaders substantial leverage with which to press Arab leaders to withhold tangible benefits for Assad. A core U.S. sanction on Syria, the Caesar Civilian Protection Act, can exclude from the U.S. economy any foreign firm that conducts substantial transactions with institutions or persons of the Syrian government.  Because much of the Syrian economy is controlled or owned by the Syrian government, virtually any Arab investment in Syria for reconstruction or other purposes could be subject to U.S. sanctions. Some U.S. allies, chiefly Abu Dhabi, reportedly calculate that U.S. officials will not sanction key Arab allies, such as the UAE, for increasing its economic involvement in Syria. However, UAE and other Arab officials are unlikely to obtain firm commitments from the United States that additional economic engagement with Syria will avoid sanctions – a policy ambiguity that has a major deterrent effect on Arab private sector leaders.