The Syrian Civil War is largely over. The Assad regime will win the war, guaranteeing the regime’s survival, at least for the moment. But underneath all the atrocities and bloodshed conjured by thoughts of Syria, there is a thought-provoking diplomatic puzzle developing that raises a number of questions regarding the future of the Middle East.
At the end of March, the 21 members of the Arab League will meet for their annual summit. This year, though, a major discussion point will be what to do with their Arab brothers in Syria. Syria’s membership in the Arab League was suspended in 2011 during the Arab Spring after a violent crackdown which has led to the war that continues today. Many Arab states have publicly favored Syrian readmission into the Arab League. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have signaled openness to the idea by re-opening their embassies in Damascus. Others such as Qatar have openly opposed it, and others still, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have moved to slow the process down. Given the international nature of current dynamics in Syria, outside powers have voiced their opinions. Russia publicly supports readmission, while the United States and the EU oppose it.
Those in favor of readmission have indicated that welcoming Syria back into the fold will serve as a diplomatic foothold countering the ongoing influence that Iran has in Damascus. Furthermore, some sources have outlined the economic benefits of readmission and favored-nation status when it comes to rebuilding war-ravaged Syria. In a less-financially-focused, cynical view, the push for readmission could be construed as preserving the integrity of the Arab League and opening a diplomatic channel for a political solution to the war.
Those still ostensibly opposed to readmission have demonstrated more opaque reasoning than those in favor of it. These nations may stand in opposition for completely different reasons from one another. After all, this level of cooperation is unusual for nations like Qatar, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, who have spent most of the past decade in a Cold War-esque stance. Aside from the idea that they will have difficulty interacting with Damascus after actively funding the rebellion, there is a higher moral question at issue. They might feel that welcoming a leader that many nations consider a war criminal, without significant reforms or concessions, will damage the League’s credibility. In a harsher sense, they may feel that a legitimized and territorially intact Assad regime is a lost bargaining chip in the diplomatic jostling to come.
The Syrian question raises two larger ones. One, would either accepting Syria back into the diplomatic fold in a display of Arab unity or delaying its readmission make any strategic difference in a neighborhood increasingly defined by regional rivalries, doublespeak and frozen relations? And two, do regional organizations like this even matter as much as they used to?
First, the envisioned benefits of readmitting Syria do not outweigh the cost. There’s little reason to further the narrative that regional institutions are hollow by readmitting Syria. Ironically, letting Syria back into the Arab League without a formal end to hostilities will serve less as a step towards regional unity than it will as a statement reaffirming the notion of talking one way and acting another. This answer is more in line with the liberal institutionalist narrative.
Second, for the moment, regional groupings and inter-state institutions do not matter as much as they used to. One can blame it on factors such as the rise of China, the regression of the United States, the growth of nationalism around the world, but for the moment, regional powers and medium-sized states have more wiggle room than they have in quite a while.
The realist’s narrative is that one should never give anything away for free in diplomacy. Some might suggest letting Syria back in for nothing is a way to counter Iranian influence in Syria, but Iran will undoubtedly remain a player in Syria, Arab League or no. One only needs to look at Iran’s influence in Iraq. The Assad regime will play sides off each other to ensure its own survival. That has often been the nature of states caught between two larger conflicts, in this case between the Saudi-Egyptian-Emirati alliance, United States, and EU; and Iran, Russia, Turkey, and their respective allies.
The sensible solution is a middle ground in which Syria is only readmitted after a final peace plan has been submitted, agreed to, and abided by an unconditional readmission, despite appearing to be a healing gesture, would damage the Arab League’s credibility and the vision of what regional organizations should be. Rushing to the altar with a partner like Syria can only cause more problems down the line in an already fragile neighborhood.
Matt Cohen is a recent Master’s graduate from New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. He focuses on geopolitical and transnational security issues in the Middle East and North Africa.