Arab nations agreed on Sunday to allow Syria to rejoin the Arab League, taking a crucial step toward ending the country’s international ostracism more than a decade after it was suspended from the group over its use of ruthless force against its own people.
When Syria’s neighbors and peers ejected it from the 22-member league in November 2011, months after its Arab Spring uprising began, the move was seen as a key condemnation of a government that had bombed, gassed and tortured protesters and others in a conflict that metastasized into a long civil war.
Now, the region is normalizing relations, increasingly convinced that Arab countries are gaining little from isolating Syria, as the United States has urged them to. Refusing to deal with Syria means ignoring the reality that its government has all but won the war, proponents of engagement argue.
That leaves Syria poised for a triumphant return this month in Saudi Arabia at the Arab League’s next summit — perhaps represented by President Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian leader accused of committing war crimes against his own people over the past decade. Syria’s rehabilitation could unlock billions of dollars in reconstruction projects and other investments for its tottering economy, further propping up Mr. al-Assad.
The circumstances that led to Syria’s suspension have not changed; if anything, the bloodshed has only grown during the civil war that has consumed the country for the past 12 years, leaving Mr. al-Assad in power at home but a pariah nearly everywhere else.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have died since the fighting broke out, and more than 14 million have fled their homes for other parts of Syria, neighboring countries or beyond, according to United Nations estimates.
“Today, Arab states have put their own cynical realpolitik and diplomatic agendas above basic humanity,” said Laila Kiki, the executive director of the Syria Campaign, a nonprofit organization that supports Syrian civil society groups.
“By choosing to restore the Syrian regime’s membership of the Arab League, member states have cruelly betrayed tens of thousands of victims of the regime’s war crimes and granted Assad a green light to continue committing horrific crimes with impunity.”
Revulsion at Mr. al-Assad’s actions, along with pressure from the United States, had left most of Syria’s Arab neighbors reluctant to engage with the government over the past decade. A few had openly supported the opposition fighting to topple Mr. al-Assad, and some remain loath to embrace him.
But the regional calculus has shifted. With the Syrian government in Damascus having retaken most of the country from opposition forces, it has been obvious for years that Mr. al-Assad is here to stay.
Neighboring countries including Lebanon and Jordan have been eager to work with Syria on sending refugees who fled there back home, while others hope to cooperate on efforts to stop the trade of Captagon, an illegal, addictive drug that the Syrian government has produced and sold as sanctions have bitten and its economy has cratered.
The leading Middle Eastern power brokers, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, were also looking for a new approach to dealing with Iran, which wields deep influence in Syria after sending fighters and other aid to help Mr. al-Assad cling to power. Deciding that regional isolation had only driven Syria into the arms of Iran, the Gulf monarchies now hope to peel Mr. al-Assad away from Tehran by engaging with him.
An early sign of where things were heading came when the Emirates normalized relations with Damascus in 2018. But the slow-burn movement to restore diplomatic and economic relations with Mr. al-Assad gathered momentum in recent months, after a major earthquake in February killed more than 8,000 people in northern Syria, opening the door for Arab countries to reach out.
Soon, planeloads of aid from Syria’s Arab brethren were landing in quake-affected areas, and Egypt dispatched its foreign minister to meet with Mr. al-Assad in Damascus. By mid-April, Tunisia had re-established diplomatic relations with Syria and Saudi Arabia had welcomed Syria’s foreign minister to Jeddah to discuss restoring ties.
After years of deep freeze, the Saudi-Syrian relationship has moved quickly in recent months as Saudi Arabia, wielding its regional clout, pushed other Arab countries toward normalization, as well. It appeared to be the main player fast-tracking Syria’s rehabilitation ahead of the Arab League summit in Jeddah on May 19, though Oman and the U.A.E. had been advocating the same for years, diplomats said.
The Arab rush to welcome Damascus back into the fold happened despite public objections from the United States, which imposed strong sanctions on Syria after its civil war began and has shown no inclination to lift them, still hoping to isolate Syria over its government’s brutality. But American efforts at easing Mr. al-Assad out and replacing him with an inclusive, democratic government have gone nowhere, leaving American officials on the sidelines.
On Twitter on Friday, two days before the Arab League meeting, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken reiterated that the United States continued to oppose normalization with Syria. A peaceful political transition that would eventually replace Mr. al-Assad through elections was “the only viable solution to ending the conflict,” he said.
Realizing they cannot stop Arab allies from restoring ties, U.S. officials have urged them to try to exact a price from Mr. al-Assad in exchange, whether it is guaranteeing the safe return of Syrian refugees, cracking down on the Captagon trade or reducing Iran’s military presence in Syria. The Arab League’s assistant secretary general, Hossam Zaki, said on Sunday that the league had formed a committee to discuss such conditions.
But renewed membership in the group, at least, was a done deal.
“Having Syria out of the league wasn’t useful, either to Syria or to the Arabs,” Bassam Abu Abdallah, a Damascus-based political analyst, said on Sunday, describing the decision as “very positive.”
American efforts to drive Mr. al-Assad from power had failed, he said, adding, “The U.S. political elite should abandon the mentality of regime change.”
Many of the countries in the Arab League have not yet formally re-established diplomatic relations with Syria and could still put further conditions on doing so. They include Egypt, a traditional Arab heavyweight that remains more hesitant about embracing Mr. al-Assad than its Gulf allies.
But readmitting Syria to the Arab League is a powerful statement, setting the stage for individual members to restore ties.
Even if some members were steaming ahead on their own, “normalization isn’t complete until they come to this building,” Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the Arab League’s secretary general, said in a recent interview.
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon, and Vivian Nereim from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.