On May 7, the Arab League made the decision to readmit Syria after an expulsion that lasted 12 years, according to NPR. Reuters also noted that Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit said that Bashar al-Assad, the current president of Syria, can attend the Arab League summit later this month “if he wishes to.”
Why Was Syria Banned from the Arab League?
Syria was ousted from the Arab League in 2011 when the civil war in Syria escalated. Al-Assad began to use extreme force against demonstrators, which caused the deaths of countless civilians.
In addition, the Syrian civil war led to a massive refugee crisis that spilled over to not only neighboring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey but also E.U. member countries. As a result, Syria became a pariah state, shunned not only by the West but also the Arab world.
Despite Being Banned from the Arab League, Syria Survived
However, Syria has been able to survive over the past decade. Professor Eyal Zisser, a leading scholar of modern Syria and the Assad regime, noted in a 2022 Strategic Assessment article that the Syrian people have no viable alternative to al-Assad.
Zisser said, “There is no alternative to the current regime or to Bashar al-Assad, since Russia and Iran, as well as the regime’s forces and the warlords, the commanders of the armed groups, and the militias serving the regime for their own purposes or under the protection of foreign forces all see Bashar as the cornerstone of the Syrian order on which they depend. This is the case even if they wish to maintain a certain degree of independence from the central government in Damascus and from competing military and security forces deployed within their operational space.”
“In other words, with the help of Iran and Russia, the Assad regime has withstood the bloody civil war and is here to stay. The massive refugee crisis brought about ethnic cleansing with the removal of large numbers of Sunnis from Syria assuring the continued dominance of the Alwaite and Shia clans.
[Related article: IRGC Attacks on US Bases in Syria Cause Rising Tensions]
Why Has Syria Been Readmitted to the Arab League Now?
What was the incentive to readmit Syria? There are two main reasons why Syria is back in the Arab League.
First, Jordan and Lebanon want to stop more Syrian refugees from coming to their countries. They also hope that some of the millions of those refugees will decide to return to Syria.
Second, Syria has become a multi-billion dollar producer and smuggler of captagon, an addictive drug, that has transformed Syria into a narco-state. Jordan and Lebanon want to bring the production and smuggling of captagon under control.
As a recent report by Taim Alhajj from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace notes, “Captagon is a brand name for the drug compound fenethylline hydrochloride that was originally produced in West Germany in the 1960s as a treatment for attention deficit disorder, narcolepsy, and depression. The drug was banned in the 1980s because of its addictive effects, but soon after, counterfeit Captagon pills began to appear in various countries in the Middle East.”
The Role of Saudi Arabia in Bringing Syria Back to the Arab League
Saudi Arabia played a vital role in the Arab League’s decision to resume relations with Syria. It is likely that Saudi Arabia wishes to send a message to other Middle Eastern countries as well as the U.S., especially after Saudi Arabia reached an agreement with Iran to reinstate the diplomatic ties and reopen embassies that were closed for several years.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, is in essence stating that Saudi Arabia recognizes that Iran and Syria are here to stay. Bin Salman also seems to be indicating that the West’s view of al-Assad as a persona non grata and the Syrian regime as homicidal and illegitimate does not carry much weight in the Middle East.
The US Protests the Decision
The decision to readmit Syria to the Arab League provoked a protest from the U.S. In a May 8 press conference, U.S. Department of State spokesman Vedant Patel said, “We do not believe that Syria merits readmission to the Arab League at this time, and it’s a point that we’ve made clear with all of our partners. I will note that we share a number of the same goals with our Arab partners with respect to Syria, including reaching a solution to the Syrian crisis that is consistent with UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
“We believe that there is a strong need to expand humanitarian access to all Syrians, build security and stability to ensure ISIS cannot resurge, create safe conditions for the eventual refugee returns, and releasing the – clarifying [the] fate of those that are unjustly detained and missing, as well as there’s an important opportunity to reduce the influence of Iran as well, as well as countering the Captagon trafficking that’s taking place from Syria.”
It’s Important to Remember That Russia Still Has Ties to Syria and Iran
In this situation, the U.S. can only express its disappointment and condemn the decision to allow Syria to rejoin the Arab League. But it’s also crucial to remember that Russia still has ties to the Middle East.
Putin has made it his business to support al-Assad and Syria, as well as Iran. So the readmission of Syria to the Arab League is a significant achievement for Syria, Iran, and Putin and a loss for the U.S. and its allies.