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What is the reason for the Arab states’ deliberations on Syria’s reentry into the Arab League?

Representatives of the Arab states met on April 14 in Saudi Jeddah to discuss the possibility of restoring relations with Russia-backed Syria (Russian troops have been present in the country since 2015 to help the government fight jihadists) and return the country to the Arab League (LAS). The meeting was attended by high-ranking officials and foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Oman, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt, informs Qatari channel Al Jazeera.

Damascus’s membership in the organization was suspended with the start of the civil war in the country in 2011, which killed more than 500,000 people, and about half of the country’s pre-war population fled their homes (5.6 million fled the country, 6.6 million became internally displaced persons according to the UN). The final decision on the resumption of Syria’s membership in the Arab League will be made at the organization’s summit on May 19.

Two days earlier, on April 12, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan met with his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mekdad. Following the talks, the parties agreed to soon resume diplomatic relations interrupted 12 years ago, as well as to restart flights between the two states. The ministers adopted a joint statement, according to which the Saudis, who previously supported the armed opposition, spoke in the opposite vein – for the restoration of Damascus’s control over the entire territory of the country, a third of which is now controlled by Kurdish (supported by the United States) and opposition (supported by Turkey) groups.

The Great Middle East Detente

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) was at the forefront of the process of restoring diplomatic relations with Syria – back in 2018, they resumed the work of the embassy in Damascus. In 2022, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made an official visit to an Arab state for the first time since the beginning of the civil war, visiting Abu Dhabi and Dubai (emirates within the UAE). Bahrain and Oman also reopened their embassies in Damascus in 2019 and 2020. respectively. Tunisia was the last of the Arab countries to announce an agreement to restore diplomatic relations – this happened on the eve of the meeting of Arab representatives in Jeddah, on April 13.

So far, Qatar continues to oppose the restoration of Syria’s membership in the Arab League, since the beginning of the civil war it has supported, like Saudi Arabia, part of the armed opposition groups. “There were certain reasons for the boycott of Syria and the removal of this state from the organization. These reasons have not yet been eliminated. Although the fighting has stopped, there are still many displaced people in the country, many innocent people are still languishing in prison,” Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman said on Qatari television on April 13.

Syria’s gradual return to relations with most Arab states is taking place against the backdrop of a general regional detente. On April 13, Qatar announced the restoration of diplomatic relations with neighboring Bahrain – since 2017, Doha itself has been in regional isolation. Neighboring Arabian monarchies accused the Qataris of interfering in their internal affairs, of supporting radical Islamist groups, as well as of contacts with Iran, but by 2021, most of the states in conflict with the Qataris settled contentious issues.

But the biggest event of the great Middle East détente was the meeting between Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani and Saudi National Security Adviser Mussad bin Mohammed, brokered by China, in Beijing in mid-March. Iran and Saudi Arabia are the main adversaries in the region, waging proxy wars with each other, in particular in Yemen. In March, the Iranians and the Saudis, thanks to the Chinese, buyers of Saudi oil, agreed to restore diplomatic relations interrupted in 2016. Already in early April, Riyadh announced a possible breakthrough in the settlement of the Yemeni crisis – Saudi troops have been participating in it on the side of the government at the head of a coalition of Arab states against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels since 2015. As a result, Riyadh agreed with the Houthis in Switzerland as at least on the exchange of all prisoners of war.

Why are the Arabs normalizing relations with Syria?

In the Middle East, there is a general trend to reduce tensions, says Nikolai Surkov, senior researcher at the Center for Middle East Studies. “It became obvious to the regional elites that the Assad factor is an established political reality: he remained in power, so one way or another they will have to deal with him. But Syria remains a serious hotbed of instability in the region, and the post-war restoration of the Arab Republic is extremely difficult to carry out without breaking the pan-Arab blockade,” the expert said.

In addition, according to Surkov, by restoring Syria’s membership in the Arab League, the Arab states are trying to weaken Iran’s position in this republic. “The Arabs clearly do not intend to turn Damascus into a full-fledged satellite of Tehran,” he added.

At the moment, the Saudis also need Assad to take into account and support the opinion of Riyadh in Lebanon, neighboring Syria, and move away from an unequivocal focus on Tehran, adds Kirill Semenov, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council.

Riyadh, as it were, gives Assad a choice: either he is in the Arab League, or with Iran, although no one will demand from the Syrian leader to break the alliance with Iran, especially since the Saudis themselves have begun normalizing relations with Tehran.

The Arabian monarchies are aimed at consolidating regional forces, and ending conflicts is the first step in this direction, said Andrey Chuprygin, senior lecturer at the HSE School of Oriental Studies. According to him, this factor is especially relevant against the background of the weakening of the US position in the Middle East. “Today, all of Washington’s attention is directed primarily to Eastern Europe. And after the American army’s rapid flight from Afghanistan, the Arab elites became suspicious of their ability to protect their allies. Local authorities have to take matters of their own security into their own hands,” Chuprygin concluded.

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