Global Agenda Non-Military Security

Syria’s return to the Arab League heralds international recognition of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad

Pavol Beblavý

President Bashar al-Assad of the Syrian Arab Republic flew to Saudi Arabia on May 19 to attend the Arab League summit, the first time since 2011 when Syria’s membership was suspended due to the violent crackdown on anti-government protests in the country. In the city of Jeddah, where al-Assad was greeted by an honorary delegation, the Syrian president shook hands with influential leaders of the Arab world, led by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin-Salman, before addressing the summit itself. Just a few months ago, the Syrian regime was still a despised actor and Bashar al-Assad’s presence at a meeting of Arab League members almost unimaginable. What has led to such a fundamental change in the Middle East, and what are the implications for the region?

Mass protests against the Syrian regime erupted in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring. In other countries, such as Libya, Egypt or Tunisia, these riots led to the paralysis and subsequent overthrow of local governments. However, Bashar al-Assad did not intend to end up like Muammar al-Gaddafi, who was lynched by his own citizens. The Syrian army, therefore, began to violently repress the protests in order to crush the reform movement. However, part of the armed forces refused to carry out the order and joined the rebels, thus triggering the Syrian civil war. After the al-Assad government deployed chemical weapons against his own population in late 2011, Syria was expelled from the Arab League, and most Arab states broke diplomatic relations with Damascus. Saudi Arabia and other countries began to directly support the Syrian rebels. But with the support of Russia and Iran, al-Assad was able to take control of most of Syria by 2019, and the conflict froze. It became clear to the world community that regime change in Syria was not going to happen, with al-Assad the clear winner of the civil war. Add to this the outbreak of the Covid-19 disease pandemic in 2019 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. As a result of these changes, the international system stopped caring about Syria and al-Assad’s brutal reputation was slowly forgotten. 

On February 6, 2023, a devastating earthquake struck Turkey and Syria, leaving thousands dead and injured and causing a humanitarian disaster in the north of the country. Several Syrian urban centres were levelled with the ground. Arab nations began sending huge amounts of humanitarian aid to Syria and opened negotiations with al-Assad. The Egyptian president even met the Syrian president in person, kicking off Syria’s reintegration into the Arab world. Al-Assad subsequently paid an official visit to the United Arab Emirates, with other Arab countries subsequently establishing formal relations with Syria. The culmination of the end of Damascus’ long-standing regional isolation was the Arab League summit in May, which officially confirmed Syria’s return to the Arab League. At the same time, Saudi Arabia, a key Arab power in the region, also restored diplomatic relations with Syria. 

All parties involved were interested in the resumption of relations. First and foremost, the Syrian government desperately needs to restore its legitimacy and also to raise funds to rebuild its war-torn country. Restoring relations with its Arab neighbours and readmission to the Arab League will give it both the necessary international recognition and an influx of investment. Saudi Arabia, for its part, as leader of the Arab League, has recently restored its relations with Iran, which in turn facilitates the normalisation of its relations with al-Assad as well. The epidemic of the drug coptagon is also a motivation. The synthetic drug coptagon is highly addictive and has spread rapidly across the Middle East in recent years. According to all available information on its origin, it is being mass-produced by the Syrian regime, which is selling it in order to be able to bear the financial consequences of the civil war. The secret addendum to the agreement between the Arab states and Syria is probably an agreement under which Damascus would stop producing this drug, which is causing enormous social problems in Arab countries. Another motivation is the repatriation of the millions of Syrian refugees still living in the surrounding Arab states. The situation can be expected to continue to evolve in al-Assad’s favour. The Syrian regime has won the recognition of its most important neighbours and, in the near future, probably also the funding to reconstruct its shattered economy and society. Moreover, Damascus’s return to the Arab League is only the first step towards wider international recognition for Damascus. It can be assumed that the huge number of Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey and Europe, for example, will be much more willing to return home once the country has been reconstructed. Turkey and the European Union will want to help with this repatriation, but this will be difficult without an agreement with Damascus. The only factor that could prevent normalisation between the EU and Syria would be public opinion within the EU. However, Syria has long been a non-issue for the European public. The outcome of the whole process will, therefore, most likely be an agreement on economic aid and the establishment of diplomatic relations between the EU and Syria, which will lead to a further improvement in the economic and political position of the al-Assad regime.

Photo credit: whitney

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