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Arab League’s approach to Syria the only one that makes sense

Syria's membership of the Arab League was restored on Sunday, May 7, 2023 (File/AFP)
Syria's membership of the Arab League was restored on Sunday, May 7, 2023 (File/AFP)
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10 May 2023 04:05:17 GMT9
10 May 2023 04:05:17 GMT9

After more than a year of behind-the-scenes diplomacy, emboldened by recent unilateral initiatives, Syria’s membership of the Arab League was finally restored on Sunday, when Arab foreign ministers reached consensus on what has been a bitterly divisive issue ever since the eruption of the Syrian crisis 12 years ago. And there is no doubt this was a huge diplomatic victory for the regime of President Bashar Assad, which at one point, before the Russian military intervention of 2015, was on the brink of collapse.

The new Arab approach to resolving the complex Syrian crisis is based on a number of factors. More than a decade of failed attempts to find a political settlement to end this brutal civil war has led to a deadly stalemate, with parts of the country under the regime’s control and others under direct or indirect foreign occupation or influence. This ceased to be a domestic crisis almost as soon as it erupted, with regional and outside parties getting involved and backing various opposition groups, either politically or militarily.

One must not forget the bleak episodes involving foreign extremists slipping into Syria to join the fundamentalist outlaws who filled the vacuum left by the regime to set up an abhorrent, dystopian society. Likewise, documented atrocities committed by the regime — including the use of chemical weapons — will continue to warrant investigation, accountability and a final reckoning.

Syria’s stalemate exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in all parts of the country, as underlined by the aftermath of February’s devastating earthquake. Furthermore, regional and global geopolitical shifts altered the views of how best to approach the Syrian crisis. What most Arab leaders agreed upon was that the current “status quo politics” was unsustainable against a backdrop of shifting priorities, needs and challenges.

The regime must end its cryptic response to the Arab initiative and should, at some point soon, reveal where it stands

Osama Al-Sharif

What is important to note here is that the process of rehabilitating the Syrian regime is only the beginning. The step-by-step approach is open-ended and it will take years before a true closure to the Syrian tragedy is reached. Meanwhile, the core of the new approach is based on finding a working Arab formula that fulfills UN resolutions on Syria and previous understandings and frameworks under other tracks such as Geneva and Astana, while achieving national reconciliation. It is a tall order and the Arab League’s track record in conflict resolution is disputed at best.

One thing to note here is that any genuine approach to resolving the crisis in Syria, which includes committing to political reforms, the return of refugees and displaced people, dismantling the drug-smuggling network and ending the foreign presence on Syrian soil, all while preserving Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, among others, must rest on a reciprocal formula. This means that the regime must end its cryptic response to the Arab initiative and should, at some point soon, reveal where it stands on such issues.

This is where a number of Arab countries made their reservations. And this is the public position of other key players, such as the EU and the US, with some variations.

For Damascus, outlining its position on the above issues is pivotal if the new Arab approach is to be given a lifeline. Assad is unlikely to abandon his Iranian allies, although he may commit to symbolic gestures regarding the presence of nonstate players. But it is likely to be a long time until he signals any concessions on critical issues such as writing a new constitution for Syria or even talking to the opposition. The latter even appears to have disappeared from the scene. There is also the Syrian Kurdish matter, including their demands for self-rule and the presence of US troops on their territory.

The new Arab momentum has to be taken in light of the historic rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran

Osama Al-Sharif

Washington’s response to this latest diplomatic breakthrough has been pragmatic and reserved. While the US says that Syria has not earned the right to rejoin the Arab League, it adds that it understands what its Arab allies are trying to do, which is to jump-start a political solution in Syria. The fact that key Arab partners of the US, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and the UAE, are supporting Syria’s political rehabilitation sends a strong message to Washington that its policy in Syria has failed and is currently inert.

The new Arab momentum has to be taken in light of the historic rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran and its implications for the wider region, including Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. A wider perspective must include Russia’s mounting pressure to end the Syria-Turkiye rift, which could be decided by the outcome of the Turkish presidential election next week.

For Syria’s Arab neighbors, namely Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, Sunday’s embrace of Damascus will be taken much more personally. Amman, for example, sees the Captagon smuggling across its 360 km border with Syria as a national security threat. There are indications that Jordan’s air force launched a deadly strike against a drug factory in Deraa on Monday morning, killing the most-wanted Syrian drug kingpin in the process. This signals a new strategy by Amman in handling such a threat, which, according to various reports, involves members of the Assad clan. Jordan and Lebanon are eager to find solutions that will allow the voluntary return of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees.

Iraq and Jordan, meanwhile, want to secure their borders with Syria in order to control smuggling, as well as to terminate the pockets of Daesh fighters that continue to pose a threat to both.

Talking to the Syrian regime to resolve a long list of issues, either on a bilateral basis or through an Arab League committee, will not be easy. The regime’s survival has come at a hefty cost and there are new realities on the ground that will make it difficult for Assad to cough up concessions. But in the absence of alternatives, the current path seems to be the only one that makes sense. Hopefully the regime will see the sense in preserving the benefits of its return to the Arab fold and will do its bit to end the endemic political deadlock.

  • Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010
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