Syria’s return to the Arab League this month was momentous, not because it came as a complete surprise – it did not – nor because it changes much on the ground – it does not – but simply because it shows the unfortunate reality that Arab governments have not significantly changed their approach to the political dynamics within the region.
The readmission of Syria and Bashar Al-Assad’s regime has been in the pipeline for years now, ever since Damascus began retaking most of the country’s territory from opposition groups with the help of Russia and Iran. One by one, countries in the Gulf and North Africa, which had broken off ties with Assad more out of regional expectations and appeasement to the West than any real opportunity to depose the Syrian dictator, began reconciliation efforts with the logical view that continuing to isolate him had no particular strategic or geopolitical benefits.
It seems that they failed to realise, however, that reconciling with the regime itself has little strategic or geopolitical benefit either. What the Assad regime currently has to offer is limited to, at best, the harnessing of local and traditional trades and agricultural produce. At worst, it has the ability to smuggle narcotics more easily and spread the knowledge of “enhanced interrogation techniques” — torture — to other Arab governments and security services for use on their own citizens.
Even normalising ties with Israel – something not so morally distant – makes more sense, as that at least has something to offer in terms of technological or economic development and advancement. The readmission of Syria to the Arab fold is essentially one of the worst, most pointless deals and political moves of the decade.
The Arab League and its member states did not even use it as an opportunity to secure assurances that Syria would stem its trade in captagon, limit Iran’s presence and influence in the country and, especially, implement a political resolution with the opposition and protect the rights and lives of the Syrian people. It seems that they had the chance to benefit from listening to the US for once, as even Washington recommended that the League and its members should try to gain some benefits from any reconciliation with Damascus.
There have been some reports of Arab states normalising with the expectation that Assad will clamp down on captagon smuggling, as well as reports of the regime ordering Iranian-backed proxies to remove flags or banners symbolising Iran from sites in Syria, but there has been nothing concrete to prove such claims. If such assurances were made by Syria, then they were not properly communicated, which exposes yet another flaw within the Arab League and its members.
For Tehran, the current situation is something of a godsend; its activities in Syria are no longer being countered by Gulf Arab states, as was unofficially the case in recent years. The reconciliation and restoration of full diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the past few months also results in that shift being seen in the wider region, particularly in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, where we are unlikely to see Riyadh or any of its Gulf neighbours attempting to move against Iranian influence.
Above all, what the readmission of Syria represents is the hollow political nature and lack of coherent vision amongst the Arab League member states and the Arab world as a whole, with regard to the governments and not their people.
The authorities, administrations, regimes and monarchies in the region are still operating on the old, outdated model of infrastructural development, economic advancement and social liberalisation as a trade-off for the right to suppress political opposition. All is apparently well and people are happy as long as they have shiny shopping malls and glass skyscrapers or futuristic megacities, even if tens of thousands of their fellow citizens are being starved and tortured in detention centres and prisons.
This represents the decades-long misconception held by regional regimes that to be as prosperous and powerful as the West, it is enough to emulate and imitate its glossy facade instead of looking primarily at open politics, freedom of thought and expression, and judicial reforms that contributed significantly to global Western dominance.
The issue is not merely one of human rights, for that alone does not move governments to act, and states in the region have little desire to be lectured on such concerns after decades of hearing about them under Western hegemony. It is also the disregard for ordinary Arab people generally. In Syria, for example, in the absence of any political resolution they will continue to live under a brutal authoritarian regime. Those in the wider region, meanwhile, will bear the consequences of reconciliation with Assad and feel its corruptive effects in the years to come.
Despite figures such as Oman’s permanent representative to the Arab League claiming that Syria’s readmission and presence in the League’s meetings strengthens Arab solidarity, the lack of such concern for the Syrian and Arab people shows a markedly blatant lack of solidarity of any kind, Arab or otherwise.
The Saudis, Emiratis and others in the Gulf may imagine themselves to be the harbingers of a new pan-Arab order in the Middle East, and there are a slew of Arab figures and analysts who insist that Syria’s return is an Arab matter. They subsequently reject any interference from foreigners, especially at a time when the Arab states are drifting further away from US hegemony.
That view may be true, and regional self-determination is generally an ideal aspiration. But bringing Assad in from the cold unconditionally is a poor way to begin and does not bode well for future decisions.
Never has so much begging and grovelling been undertaken for so little gain and to so lowly a regime that operates more as a regional drug cartel than a government. The unconditional surrender to Assad through normalisation efforts is not only a strategic mistake on the part of the Arab League and its member states, but also a huge backward step for the region.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.