The Arab League readmitted Syria on Sunday after a more than decade-long suspension as President Bashar al-Assad pushes to normalise ties with other Arab nations.
Syria had been barred from the organisation in 2011 after a brutal government crackdown on anti-Assad protesters, which led to the country’s war.
Foreign ministers from the 22-nation group voted for Syria’s return at a meeting in Cairo ahead of the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia on May 19.
The league also called for resolving the crisis resulting from Syria’s civil war, including the flight of refugees to neighbouring countries and drug smuggling across the region.
UAE: Readmission a “positive step”
Some Arab states, including the United Arab Emirates, have pressed to end al-Assad’s isolation and welcomed the decision.
Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to the UAE’s president, tweeted that Syria’s readmission was “a positive step” and “the UAE believes in the necessity of building bridges and maximising partnerships to ensure regional prosperity and stability”.
Al-Assad visited the UAE in March, weeks after devastating earthquakes struck southeastern Turkey and northwestern Syria.
UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan said in a statement on Twitter after the visit that the two “held constructive talks aimed at developing relations between our two countries”.
Qatar accepts reinstatement, not normalisation
Other Arab nations have opposed full normalisation without a political solution to the Syrian conflict and want there to be conditions on Syria’s return.
Qatar had previously opposed Syria’s return to the Arab League. In a statement to the Qatar News Agency, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson said the country’s position “on normalisation with the regime had not changed”.
However, the spokesperson also said the country would still support the “Arab consensus and will not be an obstacle to that”.
Spokesperson for Ministry of Foreign Affairs @majedalansari : Qatar’s Position on Normalization with Syrian Regime Has Not Changed#MOFAQatar pic.twitter.com/Nhrzn4Y12U
— Ministry of Foreign Affairs – Qatar (@MofaQatar_EN) May 7, 2023
“The reinstatement of Syria does not mean normalisation of relations between Arab countries and Syria,” Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit told reporters in Cairo. “This is a sovereign decision for each country to make.”
Responding to whether al-Assad could participate in Arab League meetings, Aboul Gheit told reporters: “If he wishes because Syria, starting from this evening, is a full member of the Arab League.”
Washington “sceptical” as Moscow “welcomes” move
A United States Department of State spokesperson said Washington shared the goals of its Arab partners on Syria, including building security and stability, but remained “sceptical of Assad’s willingness to take the steps necessary to resolve Syria’s crisis”.
“We do not believe Syria merits readmission into the Arab League at this time,” the spokesperson said, adding that US sanctions would remain in full effect.
Russia, a key ally of al-Assad, was supportive of the move. “Moscow welcomes this long-awaited step, the logical result of the process, which has gained momentum, of returning Syria to the ‘Arab family’,” Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a statement.
Jordan looks to curb drug smuggling
Syria’s readmission follows a Jordanian initiative laying out a road map for ending Syria’s conflict, which includes addressing the issues of refugees, missing detainees, drug smuggling and Iranian fighting groups in Syria.
Jordan is both a destination and a main transit route to Gulf countries for captagon, a highly addictive amphetamine produced in Syria, and has hinted it could take unilateral action to curb the multibillion-dollar trade.
A Jordanian official said Syria would need to show it is serious about reaching a political solution because this would be a condition to lobby for the lifting of Western sanctions, a crucial step for funding reconstruction in Syria.
Congratulations from Iran
Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Nasser Kanaani “congratulated the success of Syria in regaining its place and its seat in the Arab League to the government and people of the country”, according to the ministry’s Twitter page.
🔽 The IR of Iran welcomes Syria’s success in regaining its place in Arab League
Foreign Ministry Spokesman Nasser Kanaani has congratulated the success of Syria in regaining its place and its seat in the Arab League to the government and people of the country. pic.twitter.com/nZxb9ekhl5
— Iran Foreign Ministry 🇮🇷 (@IRIMFA_EN) May 8, 2023
Saudi Arabia softens stance
Several Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, supported rebel groups fighting government forces in the early years of the war in Syria. However, more recently, it has shown a desire to soften relations as part of a greater shift in regional diplomacy, including a rapprochement with Iran.
Saudi Arabia signed a Chinese-brokered landmark deal with Iran – Syria’s key regional ally – this year, in which they pledged to restore diplomatic ties.
After the Saudi-Iran rapprochement, Saudi state television reported that Riyadh was discussing the possible resumption of consular services between it and Damascus.
Why is this happening now?
The reinstatement of Syria into the Arab League is a significant step in a greater regional geopolitical shift that has seen states make a series of new diplomatic alliances that have challenged the existing regional order.
In recent months, states have acted with increasing independence while new actors, such as China, have entered the fray, challenging the US as the region’s primary powerbroker and pushing through the Iran-Saudi Arabia deal.
The deadly earthquakes on February 6, which rocked parts of war-torn Syria, also accelerated the demand for a softening of ties as the country struggled to receive much-needed aid under existing sanctions.