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Syria returns to Arab League: What will it change?

May 9, 2023

Despite war crimes and dictatorship, Syria has been welcomed back into the Arab League. What impact will the move have on millions of Syrian refugees, the government-supported drug trade and the country's politics?

Syrians stage a protest against Bashar al-Assad regime within the 10th anniversary of the Syrian Civil War in Idlib, Syria on March 15, 2021..
Syrians living in opposition-held areas have continued to protest against the Assad regimeImage: Muhammed Abdullah/AA/picture alliance

Over the weekend, what experts had been predicting for months finally came to pass: Despite well documented war crimes by its government, millions of people displaced, an estimated half a million dead and an unresolved and long-running civil war, Syria was invited to return to the Arab League.

The Arab League, a 22-member regional cooperation organization, was founded in 1945 to foster political and economic ties. In 2011, Syria's membership was suspended after a peaceful uprising against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad turned into a bloody civil war.

But 12 years later, with the Syrian conflict at a stalemate, members of the Arab League have said they see no other solution but to deal directly with the Assad government again. 

Ägypten Treffen der arabischen Liga in Kairo
Syria's seat remained empty at an Arab League foreign ministers meeting in Cairo in MayImage: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

This decision has been "years in the making," said Ranj Alaaldin, a Syria expert at the Doha-based Middle East Council on Global Affairs. But he added that it's accelerated recently, due partially to growing distance between Western countries and the region, as well as to increased competition for influence that not only includes more local actors like the Gulf states and Iran but also Russia and Turkey.

"Countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE can ill afford to depend on Washington and sit this contest out as the region undergoes significant shifts," Alaaldin told DW.

"A critical mass of regional powers, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have gradually come to the conclusion that the Assad regime is not going away, and they'd prefer to have open lines of access and communication, if only to minimize, even if just a little, Damascus' reliance on Iran," H. A. Hellyer, a researcher with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Cambridge University, told DW.

President Ebrahim Raisi, left, is welcomed by his Syrian counterpart Bashar Bashar in Damascus.
The president of Iran (left), a long-standing ally of the Assad regime, was in Syria last weekImage: Iranian Presidency/AP

"The Arab states don't think they can gain much by talking to Syria," added Jihad Yazigi, the founder and editor of The Syria Report, a long-running publication focused mainly on the country's economy. "But not talking to Syria is also getting them nowhere. They know they can't get Iran out of the country right now. But maybe in the future, they can reduce the long-term influence of countries like Iran and also of Turkey."

Even though analysts agree the Arab League decision is mostly symbolic right now, it will have impacts in the following areas.

On the democratic process inside Syria

Commenting on the decision, members of the Arab League said they were hoping for "Arab solutions to Arab problems," adding that they would initiate something of a new political process with the Syrian government.

However, experts argue it's highly unlikely to result in any genuine progress toward democracy.

"The suggestion that this Arab League move is conditional on the Assad regime taking various positive steps won't be taken seriously by many in Syria," Hellyer pointed out. For one thing, there isn't any real system in place to hold the Assad regime to account, he noted.

"And from the moral aspect, there's no impact whatsoever," Yazigi added. "All of them [leaders of most other Arab League nations] are as corrupt and ruthless as Syria."

On Syria's drug trafficking

Syria has been described as the world's largest "narco-state" because of the Assad government's tacit support for trade in a highly addictive amphetamine, fenethylline, better known by the brand name Captagon and often described as "poor man's cocaine."

The Captagon business has increasingly been causing social problems in neighboring countries. At an early May meeting with the foreign ministers of Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, Syrian government officials agreed to tackle trafficking of the addictive synthetic drug more effectively.

Officers of Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry sort through tablets of captagon seized during a special operation.
The Captagon business is worth billions and is thought to bring in about 90% of Syria's foreign exchangeImage: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

Shortly before and after Syria's readmission to the Arab League, there were reports of large seizures of illegal Captagon shipments in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Jordan, as well as Jordanian airstrikes on a Syrian drug smuggler . Observers have speculated these happened because of improved cooperation with Syria.

But this seems unlikely. As Yazigi pointed out, Jordan has been trying to curtail Syria's Captagon trade for some time now, including by establishing better relations. But such measures have mostly failed because the Captagon business is simply far too important a financial lifeline for Syria's ruling elite.

On the Syrian economy

Around 90% of Syrians now live under the poverty line and there are regular calls to fund more humanitarian efforts into the country as well as post-war reconstruction.

In discussing what motivated the Arab League to welcome Assad back, experts have suggested that the wealthy Gulf states in particular see a business opportunity there. 

Souvenir plates bearing the Syrian flag and the portraits of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are pictured in a shop in a bazaar in old Damascus.
Marketplace dynamics: Syria's currency has devalued by 75% and inflation is running at an estimated 55%Image: Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images

But the economic impact of the move "will be very limited because of the Caesar Act," the Syria Report's Yazigi pointed out, referring to the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, a wide-ranging series of sanctions enacted by the US government from 2019 onwards.

These apply not just to Syria, but also any third party that deals with Syria. So it's hard for anybody who also wants to do business with the US — such as the Gulf states — to get around those sanctions, whether Syria is in the Arab League or not, Yazigi explained.

Additionally most of Syria's natural resources, including oil, are in areas not currently under the control of the Assad government, he noted: "So Syria doesn't offer much in terms of financial or economic opportunities."

"Clearly the reintegration [into the Arab league] is going to facilitate business meetings between people from different countries, which would have a positive impact," Yazigi concluded. "But it will be almost negligible."

On Syrian refugees

Around half of Syria's pre-war population of 21 million has been internally displaced or left the country, many as asylum seekers. An estimated 5.5 million Syrians now live in neighboring countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.

In Jordan and Lebanon, both of which are suffering economic crises too, Syrian refugees are seen as a burden. In those countries and in Turkey, anti-refugee sentiment has grown and there are often calls from populist politicians to send the Syrians home, despite the danger they would face . Since early April, Lebanese armed forces have been forcibly deporting Syrian refugees, rights groups say

A young displaced Syrian returns from school to an overcrowded displacement camp near the village of Qah near the Turkish border in the northwestern Idlib province.
Syria has the highest number of internally displaced persons in the worldImage: Ahmad al-ATRASH/AFP/Getty Images

Amnesty International has repeatedly reported that Syrians who return are subject to "detention, disappearance and torture, including sexual violence."

Syrian refugees will be "a huge casualty" and will "suffer immensely" thanks to Syria's readmittance to the Arab League, says Kelly Petillo, coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, or ECFR. Because, she explained, "it is set to accelerate moves by key host countries like Lebanon and Jordan to increase pressure and even force refugees to return to Syria prematurely."

This is also going to cause further uncertainty for other Syrians outside the country, Petillo said. "When confronted with the choice of either returning [to Syria] or fleeing to a third country, many might consider the latter, and Europe is a top choice," Petillo argued.

However she doesn't think that European countries will force Syrians to return, given that most Western nations broke off diplomatic contact with the Assad regime years ago.

On international attitudes 

Insiders say US diplomats actually tacitly agree with the decision made by its allies in the Arab League, believing it to be a positive example of regional leadership. Jordan's foreign minister has also stated that the Arab League initiative on Syria was coordinated with the US.

"The Biden administration's diminishing responses to such acts of normalization — from outright opposition in 2021 to calls last month to "get something in return” and now to being "encouraged” — has been deplorable," Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, argued in an early May briefing.

However overtly, both the US and the European Union are sticking with the position they have had all along.

"We do not believe that Syria merits readmission to the Arab League at this time, and it's a point that we've made clear with all of our partners," US State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel told journalists at a press briefing this week.

"Normalization with Assad within the context of the Arab League makes little difference for the international community, including for the EU and member states," the ECFR's Petillo confirmed. "They will still firmly maintain their position that Assad is a war criminal."

But the main issue for the international community is more symbolic. "This sets a precedent of impunity for war crimes, the effect of which can reverberate around the world, all the way to Russia and Ukraine," Petillo argued.

"Europeans will need to firmly push back against the effect this might have on others, who are carefully watching, including many in the region," she concluded. 

Edited by: Emily Schultheis

Cathrin Schaer Author for the Middle East desk.