The Trickiness of Syria’s Return to the Arab League

The 30th regular summit of the League of Arab States that is scheduled for March 31 in Tunisia may have dodged a bullet by deciding not to consider Syria’s reinstatement to its seat. Many other issues deserve to be on the agenda, including Trump’s illegal decision to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights, the ongoing Israeli assault on Gaza, and the Syrian and Yemen wars. Nothing has actually changed regarding the reasons for the original suspension of Syria’s membership in the league in 2011, which was precipitated by the Syrian regime’s violent suppression of protests and demonstrations against its authoritarian rule.

But the decision not to consider Syria’s reinstatement came after many in Arab officialdom showed their willingness—indeed eagerness—to let bygones be bygones and bring Syria back into the Arab fold. This readiness to let the Syrian regime off the hook is sure to remain with those advocating the move. But if and when the Syrian regime does get readmitted into the league, the inevitable conclusion would be that the Arab world was embracing a morally bankrupt position, forgiving Assad’s atrocities against his own people. The Arab League also would have shot itself in the foot since rehabilitating Assad would mean acquiescing to Iran’s long-term role in Syria. It is thus essential that the Arab world hold on to at least a veneer of respectability and insist that the rehabilitation take place only once the Syrian regime has atoned for its crimes and instituted a political process for change in Syria.

Almost Unanimity on Rehabilitation

Syria’s readmission to the Arab League has been on the Arab agenda for a few months now. A consultative meeting in Amman on January 31 hosted by Jordan and attended by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait to discuss returning Syria to the league, among other topics, appears to have ended with no agreement. Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit declared in February that there was no consensus on readmitting Syria, thus confirming some member countries’ reluctance to forget the last eight years of the Syrian civil war that has claimed more than half a million Syrian casualties, made over 12 million people internally displaced persons or refugees, and destroyed the country.

Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit declared in February that there was no consensus on readmitting Syria, thus confirming some member countries’ reluctance to forget the last eight years of the Syrian civil war.

Tunisia, the host of the summit, was a vocal advocate of rehabilitating Assad and his regime. In a press conference at the end of January with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaeis Jhinaoui opined that Syria’s “natural place” was in the league. In fact, Lavrov had been pressing toward an acceptance of this principle by the North African Arab countries. Algeria and Morocco had also declared their preference for the move. Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz was to visit the Syrian capital in early January but later changed his mind.

Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, himself wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur, visited Damascus last December and was received by Assad at the airport. The United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy in the Syrian capital, citing the importance of having Arab involvement there. It was followed by Bahrain the next day. Jordan reopened its border with Syria after years of closure and tension. Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil wanted to invite Syria to an Arab economic summit in Beirut last January despite disagreements between the country’s political factions on the issue. Iraq never cut ties with Damascus and thus favors restoring Syria to its seat in the league.

Furthermore, Egypt and Oman have clearly shown that they have no objection to the move, with the former receiving Syria’s intelligence chief Ali Mamlouk last December. Egypt is also rumored to have asked Tunisia to invite Assad to the league’s meeting. Saudi Arabia remains steadfast, although cryptic, about the matter, presumably because of the full about-face it would be required to make considering its rhetoric about Iranian influence in Syria. Perhaps heeding American calls for delaying Syria’s return, Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir said that the kingdom would not help in Syria’s reconstruction before a political process for ending the Syrian war is put in place. Still, Syria’s Speaker of Parliament Hammouda Sabbagh participated in an Arab inter-parliamentary meeting in Amman earlier in March, indicating that it may be only a matter of protocol until the Syrian regime is fully restored to its seat in the league.

Perhaps heeding American calls for delaying Syria’s return, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said that the kingdom would not help in Syria’s reconstruction before a political process is put in place.

To be sure, while the Arab world has decided to ignore the rehabilitation issue for now, it is hard for those in the region to continue to ignore Assad’s battlefield successes and conquests––achieved with Russian and Iranian assistance. Neither do many Arab states see the efficacy of demanding that the Syrian president allow for a political transition from authoritarianism as a condition for rejoining their company. After all, many of them have reneged on helping the Syrian opposition to Assad’s rule and are happy to see the failure of the protests and demonstrations of the Arab Spring. In reality, as most Arab regimes are autocratic, it would not be in their interest to make democratic transition a condition for Syria. More to the point, several may prefer to adhere to the historical record of Arab regimes forgiving each other and forgetting controversial actions in the service of a proverbial common good, such as what happened when Egypt was readmitted to the league in 1989 after being expelled for making peace with Israel in 1979 and abandoning the Arab stance on Palestine.

Iran Set to Win

The current Arab status quo states––led by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates––should be quite satisfied not to consider the issue because of the unmistakable benefits Iran would receive. Their campaigning over the last few decades against Iran’s role in the Arab world, and especially since the start of the Syrian civil war, would in fact come to naught if Syria were readmitted. Additionally, the sectarian slant propagated by these states, reciprocated by Iran’s assertion that its Syrian adventure is to protect Shia shrines, would be exposed as a mere scare tactic to their populations who, for eight years, saw the Syrian regime’s murderous assault on the Syrian people.

The most likely result of a Syrian rehabilitation at the Arab League is that Iran will emerge as the main beneficiary of whatever largesse the Gulf states will be asked to provide for Syria’s reconstruction

Importantly, the most likely result of a Syrian rehabilitation at the Arab League is that Iran will emerge as the main beneficiary of whatever largesse that the Gulf states will be asked to provide for Syria’s reconstruction, the cost of which ranges from $250 billion to $400 billion. To be sure, rehabilitating Assad cannot be separated from the task of reviving Syria’s economy and rebuilding the country, especially because western countries are not forthcoming as benefactors. A recent meeting on Syria in Brussels netted about $7 billion to assist Syria’s refugees and the neighboring countries that host them, but refrained from legitimating Assad’s rule before a meaningful political transition can be initiated in the country. In other words, whoever gives Assad legitimacy will have to fund the reconstruction of the country he will continue to govern oppressively.

The irony would be that Iran, which has been hard at work trying to stave off the effects of American sanctions, could receive support from the very states that have allied themselves with the Trump Administration and preached against any role of the Islamic Republic in Syria and the wider region. And timing could not be better: at the end of January, Syria and Iran signed 11 economic agreements that would practically constitute a “strategic economic cooperation” between the two countries. The agreements encompass economic and cultural programs, education, infrastructure projects, investments, and housing. In 2017, they signed an agreement to rehabilitate the electrical grid in many Syrian provinces as well as other deals on communication systems, agricultural lands, and hydrocarbon resources.

More ironic perhaps is the fact that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) will benefit most from the Islamic Republic’s involvement in Syria’s economy and reconstruction. As it is, the IRGC is practically in charge of Iranian policy in Syria at the exclusion of the regime’s moderates and reformists such as President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. In fact, it appears that Zarif’s attempted resignation from his post in February was precipitated by his being excluded from a meeting with none other than President Bashar al-Assad, who was visiting Tehran at the time.

The IRGC’s pivotal role in Iran’s economy itself paves the way to immense benefits in Syria. If the Arab states were to provide billions in funds for managing, overseeing, and implementing the reconstruction of the entire Syrian landscape, these are likely to be accrued to Iran’s military and ideological arms. To be sure, Syria may very well become the major undertaking of the IRGC’s Khatam al-Anbia’s conglomerate. The company currently plays a major role in Iran’s domestic economy and there would be nothing that would prevent it from jumping at the opportunity to help in rebuilding Syria for both business and ideological reasons.

Billions in Arab funds for managing, overseeing, and implementing the reconstruction of the entire Syrian landscape are likely to accrue to Iran’s military and ideological arms.

Estimates by the US Department of State put Iran’s cost for its intervention in Syria from 2012 to 2018 at $16 billion. Further, Ali Akbar Velayati, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s international affairs advisor, maintains that Iran provides $8 billion to the Syrian regime annually. At a minimum, as rational actors, the IRGC and other Iranian leaders would want at least a partial return on their investment propping up the Assad regime. In addition, Iran holds the regime in a military bind that is too difficult to break. The Russian air force has helped to keep Assad in power and to ensure its own position in Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean. But the battles of the narrow streets of Syria’s cities and towns were largely won by Iran’s Shia militias whose economic interests would be difficult to ignore.

Moreover, reconstruction is not the end of the Syrian game. As the war winds down––except for the stalemate in Idlib province in the northwest––Syria’s economy will need assistance and investment; thus, Arab funds would have to continue to be forthcoming. There also will be the matter of ensuring Syria’s security and stability, which will require a future multiyear mission. Iran’s militias, as well as the major group Tehran supports in Lebanon, Hezbollah, will be necessary for maintaining Assad’s grip on the country. Accomplishing that mission amid the devastation and social dislocation will not be possible without more economic benefits for those providing the services.

While the future may bring more serious disagreements between Russia and Iran in Syria, Moscow is unlikely to be able to limit Tehran’s influence in Damascus in the foreseeable future.

While it is true that the future may bring more serious disagreements between Russia and Iran in Syria, it is equally true that at least for the foreseeable future, Moscow is unlikely to be able to limit Tehran’s influence in Damascus. The alliance of convenience that brought the two countries together has succeeded in preserving Assad’s rule and the foundations of his authoritarian state. However, there should be no illusion that Russia can manage the intricacies of rule in Damascus, a task that involves Assad’s maneuvering and tradeoffs between minorities that supported him over the years of the war: Alawites, Druze, Ismailis, Christians, and others. This type of retail politics utilizes intricate interactions that Iran’s operatives and allies have perfected in Damascus and in such places as Iraq and Lebanon, thus assuring long-term Iranian influence. As for rebuilding Syria, Russian companies may want to get in on the action, but their involvement is likely to be tangential at best.

The Required Arab Position

It appears that only the absence of consensus––an Arab League condition on such discussion items––has resulted in the decision not to discuss Syria’s rehabilitation at this time. In the current state of weakness from which the Arab political order suffers, it is ironic that a technicality can come to the rescue and save the Arab states from a foolish and costly decision that would benefit Iran, the perceived foe of most of them. But while this may be the case today, no one can tell what conditions will be like the next time Arab officialdom considers the issue.

Whatever the circumstances, the decision to rehabilitate the Syrian regime back into the Arab fold or to continue to deprive it from regaining its seat in the league should remain based on the actual record of the regime’s relationship with its people. The years since the start of Syria’s war in 2011 have not shown that the original ostracism was mistaken or ill-advised. The Syrian regime has killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of its people, displaced millions internally, and forced millions of others to flee the country as a result of a vicious and criminal assault. While not allowing Iran to benefit from the decision to rehabilitate Assad makes political and strategic sense, the Arab League should adhere to linking that decision to the implementation of a political process that involves the voices and welfare of all of the Syrian people and ultimately leads to democratic rule in Syria.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here