Arab League to re-admit Bashar al-Assad’s Syria after more than a decade of isolation

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, 15 March 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Vladimir Gerdo / Sputnik / Kremlin Pool)

Arab League states moved on Sunday to reinstate Syria to the 22-nation bloc, in effect ending President Bashar al-Assad’s decade of regional isolation in defiance of US warnings. 

The decision was unanimous, Hossam Zaki, the Arab League’s assistant secretary-general, told Bloomberg. The move, taken at an Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo, caps months of diplomatic efforts to restore ties and a flurry of high-level visits and phone calls.

It may be formalised at an Arab League heads of state summit taking place in Saudi Arabia on May 19.

Established more than 80 years ago, the Arab League wields little political heft on the global stage, but the measure carries symbolic weight.

Syria was suspended from the bloc in response to Bashar’s brutal crackdown on opponents after the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. China and Russia blocked attempts to sanction Assad at the UN Security Council, prompting the US and European Union to impose unilateral restrictions against him, his government and his supporters.

With backing from Russia, Iran and its allies in Lebanon, Bashar was able to survive the country’s ensuing civil war.

His restoration to the Arab fold reflects a broader political shift unfolding in the Middle East, where Saudi Arabia is increasingly flexing its economic muscle and seeking to cement its role as regional power broker.

As well as working to reintegrate Syria, the Gulf kingdom has been trying to bring about a cease-fire in Sudan and, with Chinese mediation, has restored ties with Gulf rival Iran.

The Arab League decision to disregard US reservations reflects America’s waning influence in the oil-exporting region, and a growing willingness among allies to forge their own political path and build stronger strategic ties with US rivals.

It could also be a win for Iran and Russia, which have supported Assad militarily but need regional help to rehabilitate him diplomatically and eventually help rebuild a country shattered by a war that’s displaced millions.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told the gathering that it remained imperative to find a political solution to end the crisis in Syria and allow all refugees to return.

(With assistance from Omar Tamo and Lin Noueihed.)


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