Arab League to reinstate Syria amid regional disputes

While trying to resolve conflict in Sudan, League’s readmission of Assad regime marks controversial turning point in war-torn nation’s diplomatic status

Syria's empty seat is pictured during an emergency meeting of Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo on May 7, 2023. (Khaled DESOUKI / AFP)
Syria's empty seat is pictured during an emergency meeting of Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo on May 7, 2023. (Khaled DESOUKI / AFP)

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) — Arab foreign ministers met Wednesday in Saudi Arabia ahead of the Arab League’s annual summit in the kingdom to discuss the upcoming gathering’s agenda and draft resolutions.

This year’s summit, starting Friday in the city of Jeddah, will mark the readmittance of war-torn Syria into the 22-member league, after a 12-year suspension. Syria’s membership was frozen following Syrian President Bashar Assad’s brutal crackdown on the 2011 mass protests against his rule. The country quickly descended into a brutal civil war that has killed nearly half a million people and displaced half of the country’s pre-war population of 23 million.

Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad held bilateral meetings this week in the kingdom with several of his counterparts as Damascus continues to appeal for much-needed investment in the war-torn country — crippled by the conflict and Western sanctions — and has moved to restore ties with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq.

Syria’s return to the Arab fold comes as Damascus is also trying to mend ties with Turkey, a key backer of the armed Syrian opposition groups in the country’s northwest.

But a few Arab countries remain skeptical of Syria’s return to the league, primarily Qatar.

Qatar’s top diplomat, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, said Wednesday that his country opposes Syria’s return but that it doesn’t want to stand “against the Arab consensus.” Each Arab country, however, can unilaterally normalize relations with Syria, he said.

In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, welcomes Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Faisal bin Farhan, left, before their meeting in Damascus, Syria, April 18, 2023. (SANA via AP)

For that to happen from Qatar’s perspective, Syria needs to go “through a just and comprehensive solution” to its conflict, Sheikh Mohammed added.

The summit also comes as Arab governments are scrambling to resolve the conflict in Sudan between the military, led by Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan, and the rival paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, commanded by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo. The fighting in the East African country, which broke out in mid-April, has left over 600 people dead and displaced tens of thousands.

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