Syria's President Bashar al-Assad arrives at the Presidential Airport in Abu Dhabi, March 19, 2023 Image Credit: UAE Presidential Court

Consensus is building up among Arab countries over reinstating Syria’s membership in the Arab League after more than a decade of civil war that has ravaged the country while pushing for an Arab solution to the crisis that has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands and displaced millions.

The UN, as well as Russia, has given up on bringing the regime and the opposition together in a bid to end the civil war and reunite the country. Moscow blames the US and Europe.

On the other hand, the opposition is in disarray and is fragmented having lost its bearings while jihadist groups control territory and refuse to negotiate with Damascus.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have recalibrated their foreign policy stances on a number of key issues; from ties to Russia and China to normalising relations with Tehran and on Syria.

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The recent rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran through Chinese mediation has been described as a historic diplomatic breakthrough that promises to pave the way for reaching political settlements in Yemen and Syria.

Last week Saudi Arabia and Syria agreed to reopen embassies in their respective capitals. Assad paid a second visit to Abu Dhabi recently and was also received in Muscat.

The devastating earthquake that hit Syria has allowed for a thaw in ties with Syria’s neighbours. The foreign ministers of Jordan and Egypt visited Damascus, separately, and met with President Assad. Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi spoke of a Jordanian initiative to end the crisis in Syria.

That initiative has the support of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. And more importantly, last week Qatar announced that it is supporting Jordanian efforts in Syria under certain conditions.

Reconnect with Syria

The initial move to reconnect with Syria began when King Abdullah suggested to the Biden administration, while visiting Washington in 2021, that President Assad remains the legitimate leader of his country.

He also said that the West should talk to the Russians, who play a “vital role,” adding that the current status quo, where there is ongoing violence and the Syrian people pay the price, cannot continue.

While the US never endorsed the king’s efforts in public, it did allow for a plan to supply Lebanon with electricity from Jordan through Syria. This coincided with Amman and Damascus moving closer to each other and reopening their borders.

But the outbreak of the war in Ukraine has dampened efforts to bring the West and Russia, the latter being a key player in Syria, on board the Jordanian initiative.

Now more than a year after the Ukraine war, Jordan is mobilising its diplomatic contacts to kick-start some sort of a diplomatic process based on UN resolutions on Syria and in coordination with Egypt, Qatar, Iraq, Algeria and the UAE. Such momentum is expected to pick up ahead of the Arab League’s summit, which will be held in Riyadh in May.

Back in the Arab fold

But reinstating Syria’s membership in the Arab League is one thing while adopting a road map to resolve the Syrian crisis is another. Damascus sees ending US and Turkish “occupation” of its territory as priority, while Arab countries hope to entice Assad to distance himself from Iran in return for lucrative reconstruction deals and removing most sanctions.

The US is likely to support Jordan’s overtures as far as they meet the kingdom’s security concerns along its northern borders with Syria. Jordan has been waging a vicious war against drug smuggling from Syria which it claims is connected to Hezbollah.

Jordan and Israel do not want to see pro-Iran militias poised so close to their borders. In addition Jordan’s economy needs access to Syria and beyond as it works to recover from the impact of the coronavirus closures.

Damascus is yet to comment on the Jordanian initiative. So far it has welcomed Arab visits that have ended its diplomatic isolation. But whether it is ready to talk to the opposition, adopt a new constitution and embrace a political road map remains to be seen.

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman