Arab Openness to Syria: Manifestations, Basis, and Prognosis

This paper addresses the manifestations of the Arab approach towards Syria, searching in the reasons and effects of such approach, starting from a main hypothesis; that is: in spite that some parties' abjection in the region, as well as the US, but the track of Arab openness on Damascus is heading forward.

by Dr. Shehata Al-Arabi
  • Publisher – STRATEGIECS
  • Release Date – Jun 2, 2022

Introduction

Although the phone conversation between His Majesty King Abdullah II bin Al Hussein and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in October 2021, and the latter's visit to the UAE in March 2022, represent the acme of the Arab openness on Syria since its membership was suspended in the Arab League in 2011. This openness, however, dates back to 2015, expressing itself through many manifestations and moves, that were reflected an increasing Arab awareness of the danger of continuing to isolate Syria, and the importance of bringing Syria back to its Arab context, especially in light of recent Arab history experiences extrapolation, particularly in dealing with Iraq.

This paper basically assumes the hypothesis that: despite the opposition or the reservation of some parties in the region regarding openness on Syria, or restoring its membership in the Arab League, as well as the opposition of the United States of America to the same, as the US explicitly expressed its position on this issue more than once, but the track of Arab openness on Damascus will head towards its goal. This is because such openness is based on realistic considerations, objectivity, and real interests on one hand, and is supported by major and influential Arab forces on the other. The Arab Summit in Algeria, in November, might be the meeting, at which the decision to restoring Damascus to the Arab League maybe taken.

Manifestations and Indicators

The visit of the late Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid al-Moallem, to the Omani capital, Muscat, in 2015, marks the first sign of Arab communication with Syria since 2011. It was the first visit of a Syrian official to an Arab country, then followed, in the same year, by other Arab steps, when Tunisia reopened its embassy in Damascus, even though it did not send an ambassador-level envoy. In 2018, both the UAE and Bahrain reopened their embassies in Syria. In 2019, Jordan sent a charge d'affaires To Damascus in January of the same year. The Moroccan Foreign Minister, Nasser Borita, said that his country supports the calls by some Arab countries for Damascus to return to the Arab League, noting that "there must be Arab coordination on Syria's return to the Arab League". And in 2020, Mauritania announced the appointment of an ambassador to Syria. 

in-12.jpg

In March 2021, the UAE and Saudi Arabia demanded restoring Syria to the Arab incubator. The Saudi Foreign Minister, Faisal bin Farhan, expressed Riyadh's support for Syria's return to its Arab surroundings, stressing that the solution in Syria "will only be political". In April 2021, Iraq's Prime Minister, Mostafa al-Kadhimi, declared in Baghdad, when he received the Arab League secretary general, Ahmad Abu al-Ghait, his country's support to the return of Syria to the Arab league. In May 2021, the Syrian Minister of Tourism visited the KSA, which was the first visit of a Syrian government official to Riyadh since 2011. In the same month, the kingdom sent its intelligence chief to Damascus for talks with his Syrian counterpart.

In September 2021, the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Sameh Shukri, met his Syrian counterpart, Faisal al-Meqdad, for the first time in more than a decade, during his participation in the UN General Assembly meetings in New York. After the meeting, the Egyptian minister announced his support for Syria's return "as an active party in the Arab framework".

In the same context, reports about the Syrian Foreign Minister's meeting with nine Arab ministers, on the sidelines of his participation in the UN General Assembly, demonstrate the progress of the Arab openness on Damascus, and the expansion of Arab desire to restore Syria's position within its Arab context.

In addition, on September 8, 2021, Amman hosted a meeting of energy ministers from Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon, to discuss ways to strengthen cooperation in order to deliver Egyptian gas and Jordanian electricity to Lebanon via Syria. On September 28, 2021, the Syrian Minister of Defense visited Jordan, where he held talks with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Jordanian Armed Forces, on border security, countering terrorism, and narcotics trafficking. In November 2021, UAE Foreign Minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, visited Damascus. During which he met with Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad.

in-21.jpg

A significant indicator in such regard is that Algeria, which is determined to host the Arab League Summit in November 2022, is one of the countries keen to bring Syria back to the Arab League, working on pushing in this direction via the support of Egypt, Jordan, and Gulf states. It should be mentioned here that the Alegerian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ramadan Lamamra, said after the visit of the UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs to Damascus 2021 "its time for Syria to return to the Arab League and its seat there".

Key Notes

The Arab reproachment and openness on Syria, in general, during the past years, show many key notes, most important of which are:

1. It is clear that the Arab openness on Syria is moving in an ascending line since 2015. The same seemed hesitant, symbolic, and under secrecy sometimes, before turning into a clear and serious moves. After it was limited to communication withing the lower levels, it turned into political, economic, security, and military top-levels communication. This indicates significant meanings regarding the future of such openness, and what the next months may have until the date of the Arab League Summit, determined to be held in next November.

2. Although the visit of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, to the UAE in Mars 2022, was the greatest manifestation of Arab openness on Syria, but the first Arab steps, which are unpresented regarding the communication on leader-level, were through the phone call between His Majesty King Abdullah II bin Al Hussein and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in October 2021. This indicates that Jordan was of the Arab countries most keen of opening on Syria, and it seems that Jordan is playing an active role in the move towards Syria.

3. It is clear that openness on Syria enjoys a major and almost-full support on the level of the Gulf Cooperation Council, except for Qatar. UAE, Oman, and Bahrain explicitly call for the return of Syria to the Arab incubator, as mentioned earlier.

It is clear that KSA supports, in principle, restoring Syria to the Arab League, but KSA may relate that to steps taken by Damascus regarding the Iranian influence in the Syrian arena. As for Kuwait, which related opening its embassy to a collective decision by the Arab League, it stressed on, through its Minister of Foreign Affairs, that it would be "very glad" with Syrian return to "the Arab family", and that Syria "is a pivotal and significant country for the region's security and stability". This means that the Gulf states stance supports the Arab openness on the Syria Arab Republic.

4. As for Egypt and Iraq, both are main supporters of Syrian return to the Arab League. The Egyptian-Syrian communication took place prior to 2015. As for Iraq, it was of the countries -we well as Lebanon and Yemen- which did not approve the Arab League decision in 2011 to suspend Syria's membership.

5. On the level of Aran Maghreb states, Syria's return to the Arab context enjoys a support there as said before. Algeria, who hosts the upcoming Arab League Summit, is very enthusiastic to bring Damascus back to the league and abolish the decision of suspending its membership therein.

This means that Syria's return to its seat at the Arab League has an Arab support in general.

Reasons and Motivations

What has been said earlier leads to ask a fundamental question: what are the seasons and motivations that lie behind the Arab openness on Syria, after a discontinuation that started since 2011?

Answering such question, we cane refer to the following:

1. The regional repositioning: The accelerated Arab openness on Syria cannot be separated from the regional strategic repositioning taking place in the region, especially in light of the changes in U.S. policy in the Middle East in terms of declining its interest in the region; its issues and crises, in favor of focusing on the US presence in the Pacific against China and Russia. In this context, the Arab forces are recalculating their strategic calculations in order to strengthen the Arab front and the system of joint Arab action.

2. More independent Arab policies from Washington: Arab rapprochement with Syria, especially over the past two years, cannot be separated from the trend toward more independent policies from the United States by many Arab countries. Washington's strong opposition to any Arab contact with Damascus did not discourage several Arab countries, that are allies of Washington, from carrying on their move toward Damascus, the level of such move was even increased significantly. This is part of a trend that has crystallized recently, and emerged in the crisis in Ukraine, where the Arab position has emerged away from U.S. support. Such position was even united, as in the UAE and Saudi Arabia's refusal to respond to U.S. demands for higher oil production to control price hikes.

3. Syrian steadfastness: One of the most important reasons for the Arab openness on Syria is Syria's steadfast over the past years, in the face of the difficult pressures it was exposed to, in addition to the Syrian government's success in regaining control of the vast majority of Syrian territory.

4. Easing the burden of refugees: Since 2011, Arab countries, primarily Jordan, borne hefty burdens as a result of hosting Syrian refugees. Therefore, such states see Syria returning to its normal position at the Arab League what may mitigates those burdens. We can indicate that some 1.3 million Syrian refugees are in Jordan, of whom some 669,497 are registered with UNHCR. Jordan's Planning Minister said that Amman needs $2.4 billion from international donors to meet the needs of these refugees.

Even Turkiey, which has a hostile attitude toward the Syrian government, may find an interest in integrating Syria into its Arab context, and in returning it to its normal positions, as this would pave the way for the return of its some 3.6 million Syrian refugees, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

5. Containing Iranian influence: One of the most prominent objectives of the Arab movement toward Syria, especially at the Gulf level, is to besiege Iran's influence in the Syrian scene, on the grounds that exposing Syria to isolation within its Arab framework represented an opportunity for Iran over the past years to strengthen its presence there. In this context, it is estimated that Syria itself may have a desire to get rid of this influence, which escalated significantly after 2011. This becomes clear by expelling Jawad Ghafari, aka "Brig. Gen. Ahmed Madani"; commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in Syria, via an order of President Bashar al-Assad. Media sources said that Syria asked Yemenis loyal to the Houthis to leave its territory, and refused to extend their residency visas. This is in addition to taking many decisions aimed to reduce the influence of Iran and its allies.

6. Supporting regional peace plans: Former U.S. Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, is said quoted "no war in the region without Egypt, and no peace without Syria." In this sense, some relate the move of some Arab countries towards openness on Syria, to their desire to expand the course of regional peace.

7. The Russian role: Russia encouraged Syria's return to the Arab context, and it helped overcoming some disputes between Damascus and Arab capitals, including Riyadh. In this context, the Russia's envoy for Syrian settlement affairs, Alexander Laverntiev, visited the Saudi capital, where he met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Laverntiev's Damascus and his meeting with President Bashar al-Assad on January 20, 2022, can be noted. This move was seen as a Russian attempt to mediate between Damascus and Riyadh, in order to pave the way for Syria's return to the Arab League. One of the topics of the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, visit to Riyadh in March 2021, who called for an end to the freeze on Syria's membership in the Arab League. His call came at the end of the Arab-Russian Cooperation Forum in Abu Dhabi in February 2017. Lavrov reiterated the same call during his meeting with the Arab Ministerial Group in Moscow in April 2022, where he said that the issue of Syria's return to its seat in the Arab League would be resolved soon. Lavrov expressed the hope that this would happen.

in-3.jpg

Moscow's support for Syria's return to the Arab League comes in the context of its support for the Syrian government on the one hand, and its opposition to U.S. policy, which rejects this return, and adopts a hardline stance against any Arab move toward Damascus, on the other. in addition to Russia's concern about Iran's influence in Syria.

In this sense, Russia's interest in overcoming obstacles to Syria's return to the Arab incubator, in the light of the Ukraine crisis, and the resulting intensifying hostility between Russia and the United States, is expected to increase. Thereby, diverging the positions the US and Russia on global and regional issues, including the Syrian file.

8. The American withdrawal from Syria: Since the age of former U.S. President, Donald Trump, the United States was signaling its military withdrawal from Syria, especially after it declared victory over ISIS on the Syrian ground, raising Arab concerns about a vacuum in Syria that Iran is filling and expanding.

Obstacles Facing Openness

In spite of what was already said, there are some significant obstacles to Syria's full return to the Arab incubator upon an Arab collective decision. Perhaps the most important of which are:

1. Iran's position: Although the Iranian Foreign Minister, Amir Abdullahian, said his country "welcomes the development of relations between Syria and some Arab countries", Tehran is aware that the Arab move toward Damascus is primarily targeting it, and will, therefore, work vigorously to disrupt and hinder the Arab-Syrian relations, especially since Iran has a set of influence tools in Syria, that Iran worked to build over the past years. Iran views its influence in Syria as one of its most important strategic pillars, and will, then, defend it in every possible way.

2. The U.S. position: Washington repeatedly expressed its opposition to Arab dealings with Syria, besides, the United States is adopting sanctions on Syria, which resemble a major obstacle to build normal Arab relations with Syria, especially on economic and trade levels. The U.S. Caesar Act, which targets any individual or entity that deals with the Syrian government, regardless of nationality, focuses on three sectors: the military; the local oil and gas industry; and reconstruction in state-controlled areas. UAE Foreign Minister, Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, criticized such sanctions in March 2021 when he said "Syria's return to its surroundings is a must, it is in the interests of Syria and the region as a whole. The biggest challenge facing the coordination and joint action with Syria is Caesar's Law. Caesar's law complicates Syria's return to its Arab surroundings, and its return to the Arab League".

But what may mitigate the impact of the U.S. obstacles, somehow, is that Washington's interest in the Syrian file has declined in recent years. Reports talked about a U.S. intention to military withdrawal from Syrian territory, as mentioned earlier. In this context, a report quoted David Leach; an expert on Syrian affairs at Trinity University in Texas, USA, as saying, "U.S. allies in the Arab world encourage Washington to lift the siege of Damascus, and allow the return of its integration into the Arab world. The Biden administration seems to be listening to that to some extent".

Conclusion

In light of all of the above, it can be said that despite some obstacles to Arab openness on Syria, the motives and drivers of this openness are gaining considerable momentum, then gradually turning into a reality, that cannot be ignored or hindered by regional or international powers.

Therefore, the upcoming Arab League Summit may take the decision to bring Syria's membership back in the Arab League. Mahmoud Khalifa, the military adviser to the Secretary-General of the Arab League, was quoted as saying in February 2022 that Syria's return to the Arab League "will be very close".

Even if there is no Arab consensus on Syria's return to the Arab League at the next Arab Summit, this will not prevent the Arab openness movement toward Syria from heading forward, because it is now a matter of profound regional and international transformations, as well as higher strategic interests of many Arab countries influencing Arab and regional politics.

In addition to the above, there are three factors that support Syria's return to its Arab framework:

1. The Arab-Turkish rapprochement during the past period, which expressed itself with the Turkish president's visits to both the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and the decline of tension between Cairo and Ankara. This opens the path for an Arab-Turkish understanding on Syria, that goes beyond Ankara's hardline stance on Damascus.

2. Despite Qatar's opposition to Syria's return to the Arab League, the region's transformations, and the significant improvement in its relations with Egypt, could help in easing this stance, especially if a shift or change in the position of the Turkish ally may take place.

3. Despite U.S. opposition to Syria's reintegration into the Arab world, the declining importance of the Syrian file on the U.S. regional agenda makes this opposition largely be ineffective. It can be placed in the context of announcing stances, without the having the intention of taking real punitive steps against Arab countries, that move toward Syria and encourage openness to it.

The opinions expressed in this study are those of the author. Strategiecs shall bear no responsibility for the views and/or opinion of its author on security, economic, social, and other issues, as they do not necessarily represent the views of the Think Tank.

Dr. Shehata Al-Arabi

A Researcher on Political Islam