More than a decade after suspending its membership in the Arab League, the Council of Arab Foreign Ministers agreed in an emergency session held in Cairo on May 7, 2023, that the Syrian regime would regain Syria's vacant seat in the League since November 2011. As a result, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia extended an invitation, conveyed by its ambassador in Amman, to the President of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, to attend the 32nd Arab Summit held in Jeddah on May 19, in his capacity as a representative of the Syrian Arab Republic, thus ending the isolation of the Arab Assad regime without changing the circumstances and reasons that led to the suspension of Syria's membership in the League in the first place, and without clear commitments regarding the return of refugees, revealing the fate of detainees, and moving the stalled political process to resolve the crisis, which are the conditions. The Arab League, along with Western powers, has long adhered to normalization with the Syrian regime.

Journey back to university

Despite the support provided by the Gulf Arab states, in particular, to the Syrian opposition factions in their attempts to overthrow the Syrian regime as a result of the extreme violence it used to suppress peaceful protests, and its refusal to respond to any political initiative to resolve the crisis, this goal (toppling the regime) is becoming increasingly unrealistic as it became clear that the US position in ousting Assad became unserious, especially after he violated the red line drawn by President Barack Obama on the use of chemical weapons in August 2013, and then the Russian military intervention. In September 2015, which ended almost all prospect of toppling the regime in Damascus.

Between the American retreat and the Russian military intervention, the Arab and regional approach to the conflict in Syria began to change to become more in line with the American vision, which is now focused on defeating the Islamic State after it took control of large parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014. By the time the war against ISIS came to an end in 2018, and the Syrian regime, with Russian/Iranian support, was able to retake large areas around Damascus, and in the south and center of the country, from opposition factions, the dynamics of the Syrian conflict had completely changed, and Arab countries, accordingly, began to think about restoring relations with the regime, while confirming its continuation in power.

It started with Jordan, which decided to reopen the Jaber-Naseeb border crossing to resume trade, which had been halted since 2012. This step came after the United States suspended the work of the Military Operations Center (MOC), which was established in 2012 in Jordan to support the Syrian opposition factions, and as a result of which the "Daraa Agreement" was reached with the participation of the United States-Russian-Jordanian for a ceasefire, which included the delivery of heavy and medium weapons to the opposition forces, and the evacuation of fighters and civilians rejecting the settlement to the northwest of the country.

In December of the same year, the UAE and Bahrain reopened their embassies in Damascus, and Oman appointed an ambassador to Damascus in October 2020. In July 2021, King Abdullah II of Jordan presented during his summit with US President Joe Biden in Washington a "road map" for a solution in Syria that "guarantees the restoration of its sovereignty and unity." The map included easing US sanctions on Syria and returning them to the Arab League, in exchange for Russia's cooperation in weakening Iranian influence in Syria, which was the main reason that prompted a number of Arab countries to support the Syrian revolution in the first place.

By the end of 2021, Arab moves to normalize with Damascus and try to return it to the Arab League intensified, as Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE's foreign minister, made the first visit of an Arab foreign minister to Damascus in November 2021. In March 2022, Bashar al-Assad made his first Arab visit since 2011 to Abu Dhabi, while Algeria intensified its efforts to return Syria to the Arab League during the 31st regular Arab summit, which was delayed in Algeria from March to November 2022 in an attempt to achieve an Arab consensus on Syria's restoration of its seat in the League, but these efforts did not succeed due to opposition from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar in particular, as a result of Assad's failure to make any commitments to a solution. Crisis.

Saudi Arabia's Position Changes

Although the Saudi position on the Syrian crisis has been gradually changing since before the Russian military intervention in September 2015, Saudi Arabia began to give clear signals that it was ready to open up to the Assad regime only in early 2023, and the foreign minister, Faisal bin Farhan, promoted the new position. During his participation in the Munich Security Conference on February 18, 2023, the Saudi minister said that "there is a growing consensus not only among the GCC countries, but in the Arab world that the status quo is unsustainable," and that another approach is "beginning to take shape," and that this should go through "a dialogue with the Damascus government at some point."

The new approach referred to by Ibn Farhan revolved around the fact that the absence of an Arab role in the Syrian crisis has harmed Arab interests, leaving the fate of Syria to be decided by non-Arab countries, especially within the framework of the Astana process, which arose with a Russian/Turkish understanding in early 2017, before Iran joined it. The earthquake that struck Syria and Turkey in early February 2023 facilitated the restoration of Arab communication with Syria, as the foreign ministers of the UAE, Jordan and Egypt visited Damascus to express their solidarity, while aid from many Arab countries poured into Syria to help the earthquake victims.

After Saudi Arabia and Iran reached an agreement to resume relations with Chinese mediation on March 2023, 14, it became clear that Riyadh was preparing to take a similar step towards the Syrian regime. Accordingly, the General Secretariat of the Gulf Cooperation Council called, at the request of Saudi Arabia, a consultative meeting in Jeddah on April 2023, <>, to discuss the Syrian crisis. The meeting was attended by the foreign ministers of the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries as well as Egypt, Iraq and Jordan. Saudi Arabia had previously invited the Syrian regime's foreign minister to Jeddah in an attempt to extract concessions from him that would help convince Arab countries that will meet in Jeddah in two days to accept Syria's return to the Arab League.

Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan (left) on a visit to Damascus was the first by a Saudi minister since 2011. (Reuters)

The Saudi-Syrian meeting issued a statement in which the two sides announced the resumption of consular services and flights between the two countries, and agreed to "create the necessary conditions for the return of Syrian refugees and displaced persons to their areas, strengthen security and combat terrorism in all its forms and organizations, cooperate on combating drug smuggling and trafficking, and support Syrian state institutions to extend their control over their territory to end the presence of armed militias in them, and external interference in Syria's internal affairs." But the meeting failed to reach an agreement on Syria's regaining its seat in the Arab League, which called for another consultative meeting in Amman, attended by Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the foreign minister of the Syrian regime, and between the two meetings, the Saudi foreign minister, Faisal bin Farhan, visited Damascus, the first by a Saudi minister since 2011.

At the end of the Amman meeting, a statement was issued in which Syria agreed to cooperate in combating drug trafficking and production, and to facilitate the voluntary and safe return of Syrian refugees. On May 2023, 12, Arab foreign ministers held an emergency meeting in Cairo, in which the ministers agreed without a vote to restore Syria's seat in the Arab League, and then Saudi Arabia extended an official invitation to the President of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, to attend the Jeddah summit, ending nearly <> years of Syria's absence from the Arab League.

Conditional normalization?

The interests and positions of Arab countries on the issue of normalizing the Syrian regime varied between rejecting without change the circumstances that led to its isolation (Qatar), conservative (Kuwait and Egypt), and enthusiastic (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and to some extent Jordan). Every step taken by the regime towards a solution will result in a step by the Arab side to break the isolation from Syria and convince Western powers, especially the United States, to ease sanctions to launch the reconstruction process, at least within the framework of early recovery projects stipulated in Security Council Resolution 2642 (2022).

The approach is based on the fact that in light of the regime's collapsed economic situation and the inability of its allies to provide a helping hand (Iran due to the blockade and sanctions resulting from its nuclear program crisis, and Russia due to its economic crisis after the Ukraine war and the sanctions resulting from it), the regime is forced to seek a helping hand from the Gulf Arab states, which now have an opportunity to regain their role in resolving the crisis and push the regime to comply with their conditions.

While Jordan is focusing more on the issue of repatriating refugees, given the presence of some 650,<> Syrian refugees on its territory, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states share with Jordan fears of an increase in drug trafficking now that Syria has become a major source of drug production. Various parties accuse the regime of resorting to the production and smuggling of drugs in order to secure a financial resource that helps it survive under the sanctions imposed on it, to use it on the other hand as a tool of pressure on Arab countries and the international community to negotiate with it and ease sanctions, which can be deduced from the Syrian regime's commitment to cooperate in combating drug production and smuggling coinciding with its return to the Arab League, and its commitment to return refugees to Gulf countries that look forward to their financial contributions to reconstruction.

While the UAE seems more interested in turning the page on the Arab Spring, the issue of advancing a political solution to the Syrian crisis is receiving the greatest attention from Qatar, which has made it a condition for normalization with the regime. For its part, Saudi Arabia seems to be continuing to try to "zero problems with the countries of the region, including with Syria, as part of its focus on development projects that fall within the framework of Vision 2030 led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman." The agreement to restore diplomatic relations severed with Iran since the beginning of 2016 was the most prominent step in this direction.

American Knot

The Arab trend of normalization with the Syrian regime was one of the manifestations of the American retreat from the region, and the crisis of confidence in Saudi-American relations that began with the Obama administration and continued with Trump and culminated with Biden. Barack Obama's reneging on his promise to punish the Syrian regime for its use of chemical weapons against civilians in Ghouta in August 2013 shocked Riyadh and other Gulf capitals.

Relations between Riyadh and Washington were already in decline due to what Riyadh saw as a U.S. abandonment of allies after President Obama called on President Mubarak to step down in response to the demands of the January 25, 2011, revolution. The crisis of confidence was further heightened by the revelation of secret U.S.-Iranian negotiations that began in Oman in 2013 and ended with the signing of the nuclear deal with Iran in 2015. Although relations have improved under Trump, whose administration withdrew from the nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions on Iran, Trump's policy has not changed the U.S. tendency toward reducing its involvement in the region, but has actually deepened it.

This was particularly evident in Trump's reaction to attacks on Aramco oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais, in the east of the kingdom, in September 2019, which Washington and Riyadh accused Iran of being behind them. Although Trump was willing to respond to the attack first, he stressed that the responsibility for responding to it rests with Saudi Arabia: "This is an attack on Saudi Arabia, not on the United States," Trump said in response to a reporter's question. His remarks shocked Riyadh, which began to reconsider its policy toward Iran, agreeing to start an Iraqi-mediated dialogue in Baghdad. Saudi Arabia's turn toward Iran deepened after the Biden administration came to the White House. During his election campaign, Biden made anti-Saudi statements and expressed his desire to revive the nuclear deal with Iran. Once his administration came to power, it removed the Houthis from the list of terrorist organizations and halted the export of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia.

The US withdrawal prompted Saudi Arabia to adopt a more realistic policy in its regional relations, under which it launched an initiative to resolve the crisis in Yemen, before accepting to open a dialogue with Iran in Baghdad, culminating in the Beijing agreement on March 10, 2023. This agreement, in turn, helped open up to the Syrian regime, after which normalization accelerated, leading to the restoration of its membership in the Arab League and its attendance at the Jeddah summit. Although the Biden administration had encouraged Saudi Arabia to open up to Iran and stop the war in Yemen, Washington was not comfortable with the Chinese role in concluding the Saudi-Iranian agreement, nor did it express reservations about the Saudi openness to the Syrian regime, which was based on mediation efforts led by Russia, whose relationship with Riyadh has witnessed a great development in recent years, including in the field of oil production and price control.

US opposition to the steps of Arab normalization with the Syrian regime has emerged, especially at the level of Congress, which passed a package of laws that have become a real obstacle to any tangible results that could result from Arab normalization with the Syrian regime, most notably the Caesar Act of 2019 and the Anti-Captagon Act of 2022. On May 11, Congress passed a law to combat normalization with the Syrian regime, calling on the US administration not to recognize or normalize relations with any Syrian government headed by Assad, and to impose sanctions on those who do so. Moreover, an international consensus emerged, led by Washington, during the Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 20, 2023, to link normalization with the Syrian regime and reconstruction to real progress in the political process, and the group also committed to holding those responsible for chemical weapons attacks in Syria accountable and prosecuted.

The Biden administration may perhaps try to "control" Arab normalization with the Assad regime rather than prevent it, so that normalization is pricey rather than free, and results in progress in addressing humanitarian issues in particular. (Reuters)

However, in light of the Biden administration's lack of desire to jeopardize its relations with Saudi Arabia due to normalization with the Assad regime, especially with the growing US-Chinese rivalry in the Gulf region and the tendency of many Gulf countries to develop their relations with China in various fields, including military and security, the Biden administration may perhaps try to "control" Arab normalization with the Assad regime instead of preventing it, so that normalization is expensive instead of free, and results in progress in addressing humanitarian issues, especially ( detainees, refugees, crossings and relief aid) as well as at the level of finding a solution to the Syrian issue.

Regional Implications of Return

Since its independence from France in 1946, Syria has played a central role in the regional balance of power, and its position was weighted among the main Arab powers that competed for leadership in the Arab world in the fifties and sixties (Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia). Syria's role, especially in Arab politics, emerged with Egypt's exit from the Arab-Israeli conflict equation by signing the Camp David Accords in 1978, then the peace agreements with Israel in 1979, and suspending its membership as a result in the Arab League. Syria also benefited from Iraq's preoccupation with its war with Iran (1980-1988) to strengthen its position in the Arab regional order. Syria's accession to Egypt and Saudi Arabia after the 1991 war of liberation of Kuwait allowed it to play a central role in Arab politics that lasted until the September 2001 attacks in the United States.

However, Syria's regional role began to weaken clearly after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, especially after the withdrawal of its forces from Lebanon in 2005, under US/Saudi pressure against the backdrop of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. However, as a result of the close relations it established with Turkey in the first decade of the PJD's rule (2002-2011) as well as its long alliance with Iran, Syria was able to continue to play an important role in the regional balance of power until the outbreak of the revolution in 2011, turning Syria into an arena of regional and international conflict.

It is unclear how Syria's return to the Arab League will affect the regional balance of power and the new alignments taking place in the region, in light of the extreme weakness of its position after 12 years of war, the presence of five foreign armies on its territory, and the regime's loss of control over large areas of the north and northeast of the country, where most of Syria's water and natural wealth (oil and gas) are concentrated, as well as the collapse of its military capabilities, and the widespread destruction of its infrastructure. Its construction according to the most conservative estimates is $ 400 billion, and most importantly, Syria has lost more than half of its human resources, with about 12 million Syrians uprooted from their homes, divided between refugees and displaced people, while 90% of those living in regime-controlled areas live below the minimum poverty line.

President Ebrahim Raisi's recent visit to Damascus has been postponed several times due to disagreements over economic agreements. (Anadolu)

Despite all this, Iran is trying to pre-empt the results of Arab normalization with Damascus, which today seems to need Arab investments and Turkish construction companies more than it needs Iranian "militias." These concerns explain President Ebrahim Raisi's recent visit to Damascus, which has been postponed several times due to disagreements over economic agreements sought by Iran to secure the repayment of its debts to Syria, estimated at $30-60 billion, including the demand to acquire land in Syria in exchange for these debts.

Despite doubts surrounding the Assad regime's ability to limit Iranian influence in Syria, one of the goals of Arab rapprochement with Damascus, Arab states enthusiastic about the normalization process argue that the return of the Arab role to Syria, at least through humanitarian work and early recovery projects, will strengthen Assad's negotiating position towards the growing Iranian pressure on Damascus to pay off its debts. Some observers have considered the removal of Iranian flags from positions occupied by pro-Tehran militias in areas in Deir Ezzor and Albu Kamal, in the east of the country, and the raising of Syrian flags in their place, as an indication that this is possible. In any case, the importance of competition for the reconstruction process, in which the Gulf Arab states aspire to play a major role, cannot be underestimated in the calculations of Arab normalization with Syria, because the reconstruction process, as much as it requires huge investments, also provides great opportunities in the fields of infrastructure and services, tourism, agriculture, and others.

Get back to the test.

It is clear that the removal of Syria's Arab isolation came to express an Arab and regional need to settle inter-differences and move from the stage of mutual attrition, especially after the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, the Turkish-Egyptian and Turkish-Gulf rapprochement, and in light of the growing Chinese-American competition in the region, and that this need will inevitably determine the nature of Syria's role in the region and its position in its new alignments. Arab countries will have to resist Western pressure, especially the United States, rejecting the path of normalization, and convince them of the feasibility of the new approach, allowing sanctions to be bypassed or eased to launch the reconstruction process.

Arab states will also have to persuade the Syrian regime to make concessions to help them in this endeavor with deep doubts about the regime's ability or willingness to carry out any pledges it makes in exchange for economic and reconstruction assistance. In any case, the feasibility of the new Arab approach based on the use of incentives instead of sanctions to convince the Syrian regime to change its policies will become clear in the next few months, and the first test will be related to combating drugs and providing a safe environment for the repatriation of refugees.


This report is taken from Al Jazeera Center for Studies.