Arab League calls emergency meeting on crisis in Sudan, readmitting Syria

The Arab League will meet this Sunday to discuss Sudan and Syria, as violence rages in Khartoum and the debate heats up on readmitting the Syrian government to the organization. 

Agence France-Presse reported that foreign ministers of Arab League member states will hold an emergency meeting on the conflict in Sudan and Syria’s readmission to the bloc, citing an unnamed diplomat.

Background: The Arab League has taken a cautious approach to the conflict in Sudan. The bloc was among many parties to call for a cease-fire on the Eid al-Fitr holiday in April. Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit participated in a United Nations meeting on ending the fighting last month.

On Monday, the Arab League held an emergency session on Sudan, though it was unclear if anything came of the meeting.

Sudan is a member of the Arab League, and, as such, the Arab League is publicly supporting the Sudanese government in the conflict with the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). On Tuesday, Gheit met with Sudan’s de-facto leader, Brig. Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan. The two discussed the “challenges facing the Sudanese armed forces,” and Gheit expressed the Arab League’s “support” for Sudan, according to a statement from the bloc.

The question of whether Syria will be readmitted to the Arab League is complicated. Syria was kicked out of the Arab League in 2011 in response to the civil war. The conflict began after the Syrian government violently repressed protests.

Many Arab League states initially supported rebel groups in Syria and cut off relations with Damascus. However, the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad has retaken most of the country since the Russian intervention in 2015, and radical Islamist groups now dominate the rebels. Regional states have started to repair relations with Syria as a result.

Syria’s efforts to rejoin the Arab League have gained significant momentum recently. Earlier this week, Jordan hosted a meeting with the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq and Syria to discuss the matter.

The Jordan meeting followed Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan traveling to Syria as well as Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad visiting Saudi Arabia in April.  Saudi Arabia also hosted a meeting on Syria’s return to the Arab League in Riyadh last month.

Arab League decisions are decided by a majority vote, and there are 22 countries in the group at present. Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Iraq appear to support Syria’s readmission. However, The Wall Street Journal reported that at least five members are refusing to readmit Syria. The outlet named Morocco, Kuwait, Qatar and Yemen as being in opposition.

Surprisingly, the Journal also reported that Egypt was “pushing back” against Syria rejoining. Egypt has been engaging with Syria in recent years.

Why it matters: Syria’s readmission into the Arab League would be a significant milestone in the course of the ongoing Syrian civil war. Syria remains under US and European sanctions, and rejoining the bloc would help Damascus’ quest for normalization in its external relations.

The US government appears to not oppose regional states reaching out to the Syrian government at present. In March, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf told Al-Monitor that countries should benefit from any engagement they have with the Assad government.

“Our basic message has been [that] if you’re going to engage with the regime, get something for that,” she said.

On Sudan, several mediation efforts by the United States, Turkey and others have failed to produce a lasting cease-fire. Al Jazeera reported heavy fighting in Khartoum between the armed forces and the RSF on Thursday.

It is unlikely the Arab League will be able to achieve lasting peace in the short term, and many other international actors, including China, are watching the conflict closely.

What’s next: The Arab League will hold a summit on May 19 in Riyadh.

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