Monday, March 11, 2019

Normalization in the Arab League With Assad?

"There's zero Arab influence in Damascus, Zero."
"Because we burned all our bridges in 2011, that has allowed regional players such as Turkey and Iran to be the main determinant."
"And suddenly the Arabs have zero say."
"We still believe investment in reconstruction should be tied to political progress."
Anwar Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, United Arab Emirates

"I do not yet observe conclusions that lead to the consensus that we are talking about. [There is no agreement for such a move [reintroduction of Syria into the Arab League]." 
"For Syria to return, there must be consensus."
Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit

"It's clear Egypt and Saudi [Arabia] are holding the line, and as long as they remain firm, the moves of other Arab Gulf countries are not going to be decisive in restoring Assad's role."
Anonymous Western diplomat

"There was already hesitation, with the drive to reconcile with Assad slowed by the U.S."
"Now Assad's embrace in Tehran [with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] will put the brakes on it."
Hassan Hassan, Tahrir Institute, Washington
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hugs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Tehran, February 25, 2019
The United Arab Emirates made the first move, deciding to reopen its embassy in Damascus and diplomatic overtures followed by other Arab states to Assad, raising expectations that the black sheep of the Arab world would soon be welcomed back into the bosom of the Arab fold, following eight years of diplomatic isolation relating to the civil war that arose from the Sunni Syrian-led rebellion against his regime.

However, the Trump administration has impressed upon its allies in the Middle East that they would do well to stand back, with the caution that any such moves to rebuild Syria would result in U.S. sanctions whose purpose is to pressure Assad into political reforms, according to American officials. However, many of the Sunni Arab states are themselves uncertain whether they really have a wish to rehabilitate a leader loyal to Shiite Iran.

"...Political isolation and political pressure (are) the appropriate approach", a senior American official stated, to ensure the exit from Syria "of all Iranian-commanded forces". Russia, on the other hand, is influencing the very same states in the other direction, urging that Arab governments take measures to rebuild bridges with Damascus, to re-engage with Assad and in this way curtail the influence of Iran.
The empty chair of the Syrian Arab Republic during the 29th Summit of the Arab League at the Ithra center in Dhahran, eastern Saudi Arabia, on 15 April 2018 (AFP)

The Syrian dictator's survival of eight years of war was accomplished largely with Iranian support. Syria's Arab neighbours supported the rebellion's anti-Assad contingent, in the hopes he would be deposed. Now they must adjust to the reality that he has survived as the ongoing ruler of Syria. At the same time Syria has hopes that Arab states will be forthcoming in funding some of the vast expenses relating to rebuilding the country, estimated at around $400 billion.

Non-Arab rivals of Arab governments, Turkey and Iran have steadily gained influence with the Syrian regime following the vacuum created in isolating Syria from its Arab neighbours. As the others, Turkey and Iran, moved in to fill that gap the Arab League countries have been left out of the loop with influence waned to the point of non-existence, an issue to be raised at the Arab League summit in Tunisia.

Where Tunisia and Iraq are expected to express their support for overtures to invite Syria back to the league, while others remain unconvinced that this would be wise, despite that Syria is viewed in the Arab world as a lynchpin nation. Assad's visit to Tehran most recently has served to undermine the argument that he can be convinced to leave Iran's tight hold, resulting in the Arab League members holding back on 'normalization' with Syria.

AFP/ SANA | Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Sudanese counterpart Omar al-Bashir on Dec. 16 in Damascus

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