An old joke playing on words is that the League of Arab States — Jami’at Ad-Duwal Al-Arabiyya — is not really a league but a nursery for the Arabs. In Arabic, the word for league — jami’a — is the same as for university. The recent news that Syria has been readmitted into the fold of the Arab League suggests that “nursery” is not enough of an insult; the organisation is both inept and morally bankrupt. Half of Syria’s pre-war population is displaced – internally and externally – and hundreds of thousands have been killed and wounded. The state no longer exists as a viable entity; Assad acts like a powerful warlord sharing power with militias and the SDF in the north east.
The incompetence of the umbrella organisation is staggering; it is no one’s interest to readmit Syria as a member. Whilst there are tensions over Iran’s long-term influence in Syria, notwithstanding Saudi’s recent rapprochement with Tehran, this influence will clearly not disappear just because Syria has been readmitted by the league. If anything, Assad will likely play Iran and the Gulf states off one another.
Syria is currently a narco state. The illicit captagon trade is powering its hollow shell of an economy, but no commitment to deal with the problem or way of measuring progress in this respect has been made a precondition of readmission even though, according to Reuters, vague Saudi comments and rumours have been spread about compensating Assad with over $4 billion if he sorts out the drug trade. To combat the captagon trade, the network needs to be broken up, but the regime is reliant on this to drive its war effort. The breakdown of the captagon network can’t happen while the root of the problem – Assad — remains in office, along with his immediate family.
Syria is unsafe for refugees to return. Even if the regime is trying to persuade others in the Arab League to force them to do so, this cannot be allowed to happen. Refugees have to be willing to return, they can’t be forced. Forcibly returning them is illegal under Article 33 of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Syrian refugees who have been polled agree unanimously about not returning until Assad himself is removed.
Reconstruction can’t happen without investment and this is reliant on stability and good governance, neither of which Assad can provide. The US, the EU, the IMF and others have not indicated that they will support reconstruction efforts. Preoccupied with the invasion of Ukraine, Russia doesn’t have the capacity or the resources to lead on this. Moreover, reconstruction without refugees is a non-starter. Ultimately, the US Caesar Act sanctions companies that trade in and with Syria, so Washington would not even be able to fund reconstruction efforts legally. There is no doubt that Assad is using the February earthquake as leverage for reconstruction. Equally, there is no doubt that aid donated to Syria is siphoned to his cronies and does not benefit the Syrian people.
A betrayal narrative is being formed, and the Syrian people feel as if they have been stabbed in the back by states that they thought were supporting them at the start of the crisis a decade ago. And whilst it’s clear now that any support for the Syrian people was only ever lip service, the so called “Friends of Syria” have truly let Syria down. Syria’s re-entry to the Arab League was not discussed with the Syrian people and lacks legitimacy.
Bizarrely, Syria has even been invited by the UAE to the COP 28 climate conference, which makes no sense at all. Not only should Assad not be given an international platform, but his presence will do nothing to persuade governments to work towards reducing climate emissions. More than 90 per cent of Syria’s population is below the poverty line and the state does not have a carbon reduction strategy of any kind.
Legal accountability is crucial for Syria to truly move on, and those who have perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity should be held to account. Moreover, UN Security Council Resolution 2254 needs to be implemented and a transition away from the Assad regime should be set in motion following free and fair elections. The possibility of this, however, looks further away than ever right now.
The US seems to be hesitant; in public it warns against normalisation with Damascus, but little work is done in the sphere of accountability or putting pressure on its allies to stop the re-legitimisation of the Assad regime. Furthermore, some have even suggested that the US is quietly endorsing such normalisation. The Biden administration is more interested in China and the Indo-Pacific region than the Middle East and most pronouncements on Syria are coming from the US Congress. It was Congress which voted-in the Caesar Sanctions Act, and the Congressional Foreign Affairs Committee which commissioned a hearing for seeking accountability in Syria. Lawmakers have also introduced a bill intended to resist normalisation with Assad in reaction to what the Arab League has done. The US still holds sway, though, and it is pertinent to ask if the appearance of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the most recent Arab League Summit was at America’s behest. The US would surely have been aware of his appearance and played a role in facilitating this.
The normalisation of the Syrian regime under Bashar Al-Assad is ultimately both a political and a moral failure. The ethical framework of international relations is broken. Peace without justice can’t hold, and whilst the past few days have been amongst the darkest in Syria’s recent history, there has to be a belief that these are only setbacks, even if this means Assad’s rule is longer than expected. After all, hundreds of thousands have died; their deaths will not be allowed to be in vain. As Martin Luther King once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.