Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is expected to attend a meeting of the Arab League today, signaling his country’s return to the meetings in Saudi Arabia. They are expected to be monitored closely, both in the region and globally.
Syria was only recently invited back to the Arab League under strict conditions, after more than a decade of civil war. Western countries, such as the US and Germany, have expressed concern about the welcome mat being handed to Syria.
“He will come to attend this summit,” Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told Lebanon’s Al Jadeed television on Wednesday, according to France24. The Arab states, including Egypt and led by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, have been at the forefront of the attempts to normalize relations with Syria. The goal, in their view, is to return the region to stability.
Return to stability
After the 2010 Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, protests began in Syria and Bahrain. In Syria, the regime began a brutal crackdown on its own citizens, while Saudi Arabia backed Bahraini actions to quell the protests.
While some countries, such as Qatar and Turkey, backed the Syrian rebels, the rapidity with which the rebels were coopted and sidetracked by extremist groups worried many in the region. ISIS and local versions of al-Qaeda, for instance, pushed the rebels aside in parts of Syria, something that later developed into a major threat.
In 2012, Iran intervened in Syria. In 2015, Russia stepped in, and then the US sent forces to eastern Syria to fight alongside the SDF against ISIS. 2016 saw Turkey’s invasion of Syria, as Ankara continued to take over and occupy areas such as Afrin, expelling Kurds and inviting mostly Arab rebel groups to resettle there.
All of this has led the Arab League states to wonder whether reconciling with Syria’s regime might help settle the conflict. Russia has played a role as well, having hosted Syria, Iran and Turkey for talks.
The Arab League preparatory meeting in Jeddah has given some curtain-raisers on the important issues facing the Arab states, Al Ain media in the Gulf reported.
Algeria handed over the rotating presidency of the Arab League to Saudi Arabia this week, putting it at the helm. Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra confirmed the meeting was taking place amid important international developments and challenges.
“The transformations that the world is currently witnessing, and what it predicts of reshaping the balance of power, must stop us to study and explore ways to adapt to them and contribute as a unified group in shaping the features of a system of international relations that we want to be based on the equal sovereignty of states and equal security and balance,” he said.
While bringing Syria in from the cold is one issue, the Arab delegates also want to discuss Sudan, which is now in the midst of its own civil war, with the interest of lowering the flames on that conflict.
This is a test.
Can these states move from pushing for stability in Syria to creating real stability in Sudan?
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan has said the world stands at a crossroads today, a term that can mean different things to different people.
One interpretation could be that the region is entering a new diplomatic era, especially in the wake of Iran-Saudi reconciliation. Others see it as a result of US influence and the slow emergence of a multipolar international system that will see the rise of China, which brokered the Iran-Saudi deal and is receiving interest for more deals from the Gulf.
Iran and Russia are also currently working on new trade routes, while the Gulf states are eyeing groups such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and other multilateral frameworks to work with China and Russia, reducing even more the West’s role in the region.
Many countries are also growing tired of what they see as Western lectures on human rights and other issues, and also the seeming Janus-face by which Western countries embrace Qatar, which hosted the Taliban, while sometimes distancing themselves from other states.
Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit has praised the restoration of Syria’s seat in the grouping.“The conflict of major powers in Ukraine harms the international economy and global security,” he said.
Djibouti Foreign Minister Mahamoud Ali Youssouf this week said the meeting in Jeddah was a major opportunity to end the crisis in Sudan, the Saudi Arabia-based newspaper Arab News reported.
“The conflict in Sudan is extremely serious,” he said. “There are two armies, both well-equipped militarily, engaging in combat in urban areas, specifically in the capital, resulting in damage, the loss of human life, and the displacement of the population.”