Why Arab League should seek reconciliation with Syria
The Arab League last month resumed some of its activities in Damascus for the first time since November 2011, when the organization’s foreign ministers suspended Syria’s membership. As the 10-year anniversary of the Syrian civil war looms, many predict that, despite the great human cost of the conflict, the country will rejoin the Arab fold with Bashar Assad remaining at its helm. Having withstood all efforts to unseat him, any effort to improve Syria’s circumstances will now most likely have to include him.
Despite the great courage and resilience shown by the Syrian people in their quest for a better future, the civil war has all but ground to a halt and the president is still in charge. Despite the West’s continued reluctance to engage with his government, facts on the ground have compelled various Arab governments to recalculate and revise their approach toward Damascus. Most recently, Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein last month called for Syria’s membership of the Arab League to be restored. That came just two weeks after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov revealed, during a press conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, that they had agreed on several points related to Syria, including its “return to the Arab family.”
Syria, one of the six founding members of the Arab League in 1945, undoubtedly always played an important role in the organization. According to Kamal Alam, an instructor in Syrian military history: “Syria still prides itself as a bastion of Arabism and Bashar knows how to keep himself relevant. And now, Damascus is poised to regain its centrality in the Middle East once more.”
The surprising nature of this rapprochement is that an unprecedented 18 Arab states had originally called for Syria’s suspension, with the bloodshed caused by brutal government crackdowns on pro-democracy protests going beyond what they considered acceptable. However, Arab absence from Syria’s conflict allowed it to become host to foreign powers, making its humanitarian catastrophe almost impossible to resolve.
There is no doubt that the circumstances in Syria are the worst they have ever been. The economic calamity in which Syria finds itself has meant the World Food Program warned last month that nearly 60 percent of Syrians were at risk of going hungry. Russia, Turkey and Iran, which have extensively interfered in the war, have their own economic problems and can offer little help with regard to reconstruction and the millions of Syrians that queue hours every day for government-subsidized bread. Regionally, the conflict has allowed for terrorist activity to expand and for the area’s new cold war to be fought at the expense of Syrian citizens. With the war at a stalemate, what Syria needs now is humanitarian assistance, not military or logistical support — it is through rejoining the Arab fold that many believe this will be possible.
In the 1970s, then-US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, referring to conflict in the region, commented that there could be no war with Israel without Egypt, but there could also be no peace without Syria. To that end, for the situation in the region to improve, the Syrian government has to be engaged with — otherwise it will remain an outcast and at risk of further involving foreign powers. Amr Moussa, a former Egyptian foreign minister and Arab League secretary-general, was keen to emphasize this point. He said: “Turkey, Israel and Iran cannot alone draw lines, nor try to exercise influence or determine the region’s order. The Arab countries as assembled in the Arab League must play a principal role in this context.” His emphasis on the need for an Arab resolution to the situation in Syria maintains a nuanced approach that recognizes that aspirations in the region have changed. “The Arab League could facilitate a return to normal, which must take into consideration the Arab people’s will for change to the better, especially good governance and modernization,” he said.
The Syrian government has to be engaged with — otherwise it will remain an outcast and at risk of further involving foreign powers.
Zaid M. Belbagi
In many respects, Moussa’s sentiments reflect those of many Arab governments. He added: “Given that the Arab nations are seeking a return to normal, it is better to seek some sort of return to the status quo. But these are different circumstances, we are entering the third decade of the 21st century, reconciliation requires an active and objective refocusing on the Arab League and understanding that the region’s problems are Arab in nature and cannot be resolved by third parties.” The realization that the region’s problems have been exacerbated by foreign powers and certainly not solved by them is one that has increasingly taken hold. As to whether the Arab League can fill the void, that remains to be seen.
After a decade of conflict, it is clear that Assad will likely remain in power for the foreseeable future. And, with that, Damascus is poised to regain its centrality in the Middle East. The sheer scale of the reconstruction effort that is required to build a new Syria that meets the aspirations of its people are immense. The Arab states lost Syria once and paid the price through her invitation of foreign and often malign powers. The Arab League must now work toward reconciliation. As Moussa said: “Only the Arab countries can seek to resolve the issues they have from within.”
- Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid