Thu, Dec 27, 2018 - Page 6 News List

Arab League expected to readmit Syria

SHIFTING NEEDS:Saudi Arabia and the UAE are likely aiming to pull Syria away from Iran, which has been funding reconstruction and promising normalized trade relations

The Guardian

Gulf nations are moving to readmit Syria into the Arab League, eight years after Damascus was expelled over its brutal repression of peaceful protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Some time next year, it is likely that al-Assad is to be welcomed to once again take his place among the Arab world’s leaders, sources said.

Shoulder to shoulder with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, the moment would mark the definitive death of the Arab Spring, the hopes of the region’s revolutions crushed by the newest generation of strongmen.

Syria was thrown out of the Arab League in 2011 over its violent response to opposition dissent, a move that failed to stem the bloodshed that spiraled into civil war.

However, a regional thaw is already under way.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on Sunday became the first Arab League leader to visit Syria in eight years, a visit widely interpreted as a gesture of friendship on behalf of Saudi Arabia, which has shored up ties with Khartoum.

Pro-government media outlets posted photographs of the leaders shaking hands and grasping each other’s arms on a red carpet leading from the Russian jet that ferried al-Bashir to Damascus along with the hashtag “More are yet to come.”

There is a growing consensus among the league’s 22 members that Syria should be readmitted to the alliance, although the US is pressuring Riyadh and Cairo to hold off on demanding a vote from members, diplomatic sources said.

The move comes despite al-Assad’s intimate ties to Iran, to whom the regime owes its survival.

For Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), re-embracing Syria is a new strategy aimed at pivoting al-Assad away from Tehran’s sphere of influence, fueled by the promise of normalized trade relations and reconstruction money.

Syrian and external estimates show that about US$400 billion is needed to rebuild the country, but the UN would refuse to send a penny until al-Assad engages with the UN peace process.

The full sum would probably never materialize and much of Syria is likely to remain in ruins — but Riyadh’s pockets are much deeper than Tehran’s and Moscow’s. Any forthcoming Gulf reconstruction money is to be directed to areas that stayed loyal to the government throughout the war.

“Arab leaders in the Gulf have long acquiesced to the idea of Bashar al-Assad surviving in power. In the end, in the big scheme of regional revolution and counterrevolution, [al-]Assad was one of them — an Arab autocrat fighting against what especially Emirati and Egyptian leaders consider subversive revolutionary and Islamist forces such as the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Tobias Schneider, a research fellow at Berlin’s Global Public Policy Institute.

“[Al-]Assad will be angling to pragmatically extract as much out of the regional powers’ ambitions as he can. Incremental steps toward normalization without risking his own survival in a new bout of regional competition,” Schneider added.

Al-Assad in October told a Kuwaiti newspaper that Syria has after years of hostility reached a “major understanding” with Arab states.

Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates Walid al-Muallem earlier this year was seen shaking the hand of Bahraini Minister of Foreign Affairs Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

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