Syria was ejected from the bloc in 2011 as the Assad regime at the time cracked down on pro-democracy protesters taking part in the region-wide Arab Spring revolutions.
Qatar held on to its long-standing position rejecting the return of Syria’s Bashar Al Assad regime to the Arab League during a regional meeting in Jeddah on Friday, prompting calls for more pushback by experts who say the regime must be forced to make concessions before making a comeback on the world stage.
Foreign ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council plus Jordan, Egypt and Iraq met in Saudi Arabia to discuss their positions on whether the Assad regime should return to the Arab League, weeks ahead of the upcoming summit in Saudi Arabia on 19 May.
Citing two officials with knowledge on the meeting, the Financial Time (FT) reported “a sharp pushback” on the matter from Qatar, Kuwait and Jordan , despite the latter of which rekindling ties with Assad last year.
“They all asked…what are you getting from them?” one official told FT.
Syria was ejected from the bloc in 2011 as the Assad regime at the time cracked down on pro-democracy protesters taking part in the region-wide Arab Spring revolutions. However, more than a decade on, a number of Arab states have appeared to lean towards normalisation with Damascus.
In recent weeks, host of the upcoming Arab League summit, Saudi Arabia has spearheaded efforts to push for the reinstatement of the Syrian regime in the bloc.
On Wednesday, Syria’s Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad arrived in Saudi Arabia on the first such visit to the kingdom in more than a decade.
Similarly, ties between Egypt and Syria have appeared to thaw since the start of the year, with top officials holding visits and meetings in recent weeks.
“While there is still disagreement over Assad’s return to the Arab League, there is a growing Arab consensus to engage with Damascus. Syria returning to the Arab League is a question of when, not if,” Anna Jacobs, Senior Gulf Analyst at International Crisis Group, told Doha News.
Similar moves were made ahead of the summit last year, with host Algeria pushing for Syria’s membership to be reinstated. However, those efforts failed thanks to major pushback from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Kuwait.
However, analysts now believe the opposing camp would not “aggressively try to block” such a move.
“Even if Qatar and Kuwait oppose normalisation with Assad and Syria’s return to the Arab League, it’s unlikely that they would aggressively try and block it, especially given that Saudi Arabia is one of the countries pushing for it the hardest,” Jacobs added.
Absence of political concessions
On the other hand, experts on Syria believe Assad should not be reintegrated into the global community without political concessions from the regime.
“I think the Assad regime should not be reintegrated in the global community, and Syria’s seat should not be reinstated in the Arab League without genuine political concessions from the Assad regime,” Karam Shaar, a political economist focused on Syria, told Doha News.
“I feel like we should be looking at what happened in neighbouring Lebanon in 1991 and how the Taif agreement, which was incomplete, it basically just was a way to make sure that all warlords on all sides were happy,” Shaar explained.
Shaar also said talk of a political solution for Syria has appeared to drift from a possible power sharing agreement to granting Assad entire control over the country, despite more than a decade of crimes against civilians.
“In Syria, there was always hope that such a power sharing agreement would happen in spite of all of its drawbacks. Now, we’re not even looking at this, we’re basically looking at a world where Bashar Al Assad regains control over everything effectively,” he said.
The expert noted that there is a need for “coordinated efforts” to double up the pressure on Assad for genuine concessions.
“Coordinated effort needs to happen from multiple countries at the same time to increase the level of pressure on the Assad regime so that they can squeeze out genuine concessions from it before reintegrating it into the international community,” he said.
Such a concession could include assistance to halt captagon smuggling – a key issue of focus by the international community and a major area of concern by the Arab League.
In recent years, investigations by foreign and Arab media found the regime complicit in drug smuggling, essentially turning Syria into a top narco state.
An investigation by The New York Times in 2021 pointed to the distribution process, which it said was supervised by the Syrian army’s Fourth Armored Division, run by Assad’s younger brother Maher Al-Assad.
During the same year, German magazine Der Spiegel reported that the drug shipments’ value amounted to $5.7 billion.
“Would Bashar Al Assad be willing now to, to give concessions? I think he would be willing to give only cosmetic concessions to the opposition and short term concessions as well,” Shaar said.
Referring to the drug smuggling, Shaar said whether Assad would be willing to halt the industry remains a question.
“There is talk about seeking Bashar Al Assad’s help. Now can Bashar Assad help with that? Absolutely. Yes, he is capable of stopping that industry. But would he be willing to do it?” Shaar said.
He added: “Bashar Assad will always be able to find a way out and not to stop the supply of narcotics.”
Qatar’s unwavering stance
Authorities in Doha have been persistent and consistent with Qatar’s position on the case.
On Thursday, Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani said there is currently “nothing on the table” and said reports being published by the media are mere speculations.
“There were reasons behind freezing Syria’s membership at the Arab League and the boycott of the Syrian regime and these reasons are still there,” Sheikh Mohammed stressed in his first live interview since becoming Qatar’s prime minister.
He added that Qatar wants to leave the resolution to Syria’s crisis at the hands of the Syrian people themselves.
“(Qatar’s) individual decision is not to take any step if there is no political development or solution to the crisis,” he said.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) said in January 2022 that at least 1,271 civilians, including 229 children, and 104 victims of torture were killed in Syria in 2021 alone.
The Assad regime caused a refugee crisis, with millions of Syrians unable to return home in fear of torture, forced disappearance or detainment.
“The war has stopped but Syrian people are still displaced, there are innocent people in prisons, there are many things,” Sheikh Mohammed added.