Arab Foreign Ministers, including Faisal al-Mekdad, have gathered in Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah to prepare for Friday’s Arab League summit. During this meeting, the focus is anticipated to shift towards Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has been widely condemned for over ten years and is predicted to attract significant attention. Meanwhile, there is doubt in Washington regarding Assad’s reintegration into the Arab fold, with recent developments including the introduction of a bill by lawmakers aimed at preventing U.S. recognition of Assad. Simultaneously, undisclosed direct talks are said to be ongoing between the U.S. and the Syrian government in Muscat, Oman.
Syria’s Assad to steal spotlight at Arab summit after years in the cold
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a pariah for more than a decade, is expected to steal the spotlight at Friday’s Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia, where he will rub shoulders with regional leaders who once backed his war foes, Reuters reported.
Ostracised by most Arab states following his crackdown on protests against his rule in 2011 and the ensuing civil war, his government’s return to the bloc is a signal that his war-battered country’s isolation is ending.
Assad to Attend Arab Summit
A senior Syrian official affirmed on Wednesday that Syrian President Bashar Assad will be in Jeddah to take part in Friday’s Arab League summit.
Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Ayman Susan, said in a statement to Asharq Al-Awsat that “Syrian President Bashar Assad will be present in Jeddah”.
Susan said it is common sense to have the summit held in politically-moderate Saudi Arabia.
In his statement to Asharq Al-Awsat, Susan said that everyone wants the summit to be a prelude for a new phase.
“The importance of holding the summit in Saudi Arabia is unquestionable because it is evident and clear. Saudi Arabia, with its weight and moderate policies, everyone hopes that the Jeddah summit would pave the way for a new phase amid atmospheres of optimism.”
However, Reuters reports that while Arab countries appear to have brought Assad in from the cold, they are still demanding that he curbs Syria’s flourishing drugs trade and that war refugees can return.
“This is, indeed, a triumphant moment for Bashar al-Assad, being accepted back into the Arab League, the Arab world, after being shunned and isolated by it for over a decade,” said David Lesch, a Middle East History professor at Trinity University in Texas.
Several states, including Qatar and Kuwait, had voiced their opposition to welcoming back Assad. But the summit will underscore how Qatar has scaled back its ambitions to be a major diplomatic player in the region and accept Saudi’s preeminent role.
Reuters adds that Washington has been skeptical about Assad’s return to the Arab fold. A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers introduced a bill last week intended to bar U.S. recognition of Assad as Syria’s president and enhance Washington’s ability to impose sanctions.
His return to the Arab League is likely to revive questions over his human rights record.
“There has been indeed in the past few years a willingness by Saudi Arabia and other regional actors to consolidate a form of authoritarian stability in the region,” said Joseph Daher, a professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.
“Despite continuous rivalries among various states…they hold a common position in wanting to return to a situation similar to that in place before the uprisings in 2011.”
FMs meet ahead of summit
Saudi Arabia on Wednesday officially took over the rotating presidency of the Arab League summit from Algeria as Syria’s attendance at the meeting was welcomed after years of isolation, Al-Arabiya reports.
Algerian Foreign Minister Ahmed Attaf handed over the presidency to the Kingdom’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan during a meeting for Arab foreign ministers in Jeddah.
Syria was represented at Wednesday’s meeting by a high-level delegation headed by the country’s Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, who confirmed that Assad will attend Friday’s summit.
“Saudi Arabia has exerted tremendous effort to [plan for the meeting] and embrace all Arab countries. We are very grateful that all countries are now present in this summit, and this is an achievement for the role that [the Kingdom] plays,” Mekdad told Saudi Arabia’s al-Ekhbariya state television.
In his speech, Prince Faisal underscored the need for unity among Arab countries in order to overcome mutual challenges and difficulties.
“More effort should be exerted to strengthen joint Arab work to face and find solutions to these challenges so that our region can be safe and stable,” Prince Faisal said.
He also called on countries to put aside their differences while rejecting external interferences in countries’ affairs.
Arab states see a path to progress through Syria. It could be bumpy
In a long analysis for Christian Science Monitor, Taylor Luck discusses why it’s not so easy bringing Syria, Arabs together.
For Luck, Arab states are embracing the Assad regime in Syria, signaling a significant shift in their approach after years of suspension and pressure. The Arab League’s decision to readmit Syria and the upcoming attendance of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at an Arab League summit in Riyadh mark a dramatic turnaround. The change in stance is driven by realpolitik, as Arab states seek cooperation with Syria to address shared challenges, including militias, illicit drugs, and refugees.
The Gulf states, Luck adds, in particular, are eager to extend the wave of cooperation and diplomacy sweeping across the Middle East to Syria. They aim to offer normalization, legitimacy, and financial aid to Damascus in exchange for addressing key issues. These include curbing the production and flow of illegal narcotics, allowing humanitarian aid to reach rebel-held areas, facilitating the return of Syrian refugees, and restoring properties to exiled Syrians.
He says Arab states envision a new way of engaging with Syria, where their financial support and engagement will pave the way for a national political dialogue, political reforms, and the reunification of territories currently outside of Assad’s control. The Arab states’ approach is also motivated by a desire to empower the Syrian government and weaken armed non-state actors like Hezbollah and Iranian- and Turkey-backed militias.
However, there are challenges ahead. Arab diplomats must navigate a history of broken agreements with the Assad government, which has eroded trust. Moreover, Assad’s reliance on Iranian military power and aid, as well as the presence of Hezbollah, pose obstacles to full normalization. The recent airstrikes conducted by Jordan targeting drug operations in southern Syria without coordination with Damascus signal a warning that Arab states are prepared to take matters into their own hands if Syria fails to address key issues.
Furthermore, the reports says, international justice and Western sanctions loom over the potential for full engagement. The Caesar Act, which imposes U.S. sanctions on Syria, and ongoing legal cases alleging crimes against humanity pose limitations on financial aid and economic cooperation that Arab states can offer. The outstanding issues of the autonomous Kurdish-run regions and the military presence of Turkey and Russia also complicate the path to progress.
Luck concludes that while Arab states see potential in cooperating with Syria, the road ahead may be bumpy. The success of the Arab states’ engagement hinges on Syria’s willingness to fulfill the conditions set by the Arab states and overcome the challenges of international justice and sanctions. It remains to be seen whether Damascus will take the necessary steps to regain legitimacy, address shared challenges, and establish a new way of doing business with the Arab world.
US and Syria holding secret talks in Oman
A senior diplomatic official in the Arab League has revealed exclusively to The Cradle that secret, direct negotiations are currently taking place between the US and Syrian governments.
The diplomat, who revealed the information under the condition of anonymity, said that “the talks took place in the Omani capital Muscat, ‘the city of secret negotiations’ between Washington and several nations in West Asia.” He also pointed out that the “meetings included security figures from both countries and representatives of foreign Ministries.”
During the talks, Syrian officials mainly pressed for the complete withdrawal of US occupation troops from the country. According to field sources that spoke with The Cradle, around 2,000 American military personnel are present at any given time in Syrian territory across 22 US bases – a figure higher than the Pentagon’s official count of 900 troops, The Cradle added.
During the Muscat talks, the source stressed that “the American envoy repeatedly confirmed that he has information that Austin Tice is alive and in a Syrian army detention center. However, the Syrian delegation insisted that it had no information about Tice, with Damascus expressing its readiness to make all possible efforts to reveal his fate.”
According to The Cradle’s sources, the White House is convinced that Damascus knows of Tice’s whereabouts. However, the Syrian delegation in Muscat did not confirm any information on this matter.
According to sources, Washington and Damascus began secret communications during the administration of former US president Donald Trump. However, these fell by the wayside once Trump stated his intention to “kill” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in September 2020.
The diplomat added that “secret talks took place in previous years between Damascus and Washington, but most of them were through mediators, such as the former director general of the Lebanese General Security, Abbas Ibrahim. Direct meetings also took place between the two countries, one of which was in the Syrian capital, Damascus.” However, the number of direct meetings remained limited.
‘We know where you are’: Syria drug dealers warned by Jordan via text
Warning text messages were sent out to dozens of people in southern Syria wanted for drug crimes, urging them to hand themselves over to Jordanian authorities The New Arab reported.
The messages, reportedly received by suspected drug dealers in the Daraa and Suweida governorates from an unknown sender, called on them to surrender to Jordanian border guards or face a similar fate to Marei al-Ramthan, one of Syria’s most notorious drug dealers.
Activist Abu al-Baraa al-Hourani confirmed the text messages were sent, in an interview with Al-Araby Al-Jadeed.
“The [text] message included threats that in the event of non-compliance with orders, the fate of those who work in the promotion, trade and smuggling of drugs will face the same fate of Marei Al-Ramthan,” said Al-Hourani.
The messages contained information about the whereabouts of the suspected fugitives.
“Al-Ramthan will not be the last,” read the text messages, warning that Jordan was ready to strike inside Syria “at any time.”
Daraa and Suweida – both largely within Syrian regime control – sit on the border with Jordan, which has become a main transit route for drug smugglers looking to reach the Gulf.
US Representatives House approves Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act
The Foreign Affairs Committee of the US House of Representatives approved on Tuesday the ‘Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act’ of 2023, which is to be included later in both the House and Senate’s agenda and then the office of the US president, North Press reports.
The Syrian Support Group, a Washington-based non-governmental organization, the only organization permitted to provide support directly to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) by the US government, said that the Foreign Affairs Committee approved the ‘Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act’ of 2023 days after its introduction.
A bipartisan group of US lawmakers introduced a bill on May 11 that would bar the White House from normalizing ties with the government of Bashar al-Assad and facilitate sanctioning countries that do.
The ‘Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act’ was introduced by Representatives Joe Wilson, Vicente Gonzalez, Michael McCaul, Brendan Boyle, French Hill, Steve Cohen, Carlos Gimenez and Amata Radewagen.
The bill faces a vote in the House of Representatives and in the Senate.
If backed by a majority, it will be put before US President Joe Biden’s desk for final approval.
However, the date of implementation has not been announced.
This bill follows multiple normalization processes between Arab countries and the Syrian government over protests by the US, which rejects any normalization with the Syrian government without serious steps toward a political solution to the Syrian crisis.
The bill has been one of the strongest pieces of legislation regarding Syria since the approval of the Caesar Act in 2019.
In June 2019, the US administration imposed sanctions that targeted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his inner circle in a bid to force it back to the UN and put an end to the country’s decade-long war.
The bill’s provisions include “a requirement for an annual strategy from the secretary of state for five years on countering normalization with Assad’s government, including a list of diplomatic meetings held between Syria’s government and Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and others,” according to Reuters.