Algeria will host the regular Arab Summit meeting in March next year, with the most important item on the agenda being the readmission of Syria to the Arab League.
Syria’s membership of the league was suspended at the Arab Summit meeting in Doha in 2012. In retrospect, this hasty decision on the part of Arab governments at the height of what is commonly referred to as the “Arab Spring” has not served Arab interests. To make matters worse, the Doha Summit also decided, against the league Charter, to let the “Syrian opposition” take the seat of the Syrian government at league meetings.
The Arab world was in the midst of a violent tide of regime changes in many Arab republics at the time. These changes were supposed to be taking place through an unholy alliance between foreign and regional governments acting with some of the Arab monarchies having domestic political forces hailing from Political Islam and spearheaded by the Muslim Brotherhood, though the forces had different names from one country to another.
The Brotherhood retained its name in the birthplace of this Islamist movement, Egypt, but in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Yemen, it had different and varied designations.
Historically and strategically, Syria, regardless of the different rulers and governments in place in Damascus, has always been a major stabilising force in Arab politics and in defending Arab national interests. It has been, with Egypt at different times, the bedrock of Arab territorial integrity. When the two countries have been allied together, they have been able to defend their territorial integrity, thus also indirectly defending that of other Arab countries in the Middle East and Arab Peninsula.
From an Egyptian point of view, the strategic borders of Egypt lie on the northern borders of Syria with Turkey and on the eastern borders of Syria with Iraq. Maybe this explains the fact that despite the secession of Syria from the union with Egypt in September 1961 – the union lasted from February 1958 until late 1961 – the two armies of Egypt were designated as the second and third armies, with the first being in Syria.
These three armies fought a joint war of liberation against Israel in October 1973. Needless to say, the two Egyptian armies would never have been able to storm the Suez Canal in 1973 without the participation of the Syrian Army. How this war was concluded is a useful and timely reminder of the strategic costs of Egypt and Syria moving apart.
Between 2012 and 2015, Syria became a prize that competing international, regional and some Arab monarchies fought to possess. For the powers that supported the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and those that opposed it, Syria was a battlefield of competing and diametrically opposed strategic interests.
The three regional powers that have always tried to weaken Syria, namely Israel, Turkey and Iran, have all benefited from the struggle for Syria. The Iranians have consolidated their presence in the heartland of the Middle East to pose a threat to all the Arab countries, including Egypt. Turkey, owing to its pre-Arab Spring policy of “zero problems” with Syria and other countries in the Middle East, became a conduit for arms and assistance to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and other groups fighting in the name of Islam, including Daesh, or the so-called “Islamic State” group, to overthrow the Al-Assad regime.
As for the Israelis, and under the elusive principle of self-defence, they turned Syria into an indirect theatre of war with the Iranians and pro-Iranian Arab militias that had come in the hundreds of thousands to protect the Syrian government.
For the Americans and the Russians, Syria became once again a land of confrontation and a way of entrenching their presence in the Middle East. The irony is that these two powers have stuck to the line that they are fighting terrorism and terrorist groups. Meanwhile, some Arab monarchies, wanting to justify their blatant interference in Syria, have defended such ill-considered policies in the name of democracy and human rights.
From 2012 to 2017, the briefly united Syrian opposition mushroomed into various political groupings, each with its own allegiance either to a foreign or regional power or to an Arab monarchy. Today, there is no dependable Syrian opposition that can effectively cooperate with the government in Damascus and the international community to carry out UN Security Council Resolution 2254 of December 2015 that has become the accepted roadmap for a “democratic transition” in Syria with the ultimate aim of bringing the various conflicts on Syrian territory to an end.
The struggle for Syria by the use of force, regardless of the declared political and ideological justifications, has been the hallmark of the last decade, but today it is coming to an end. A repositioning of the concerned parties has been seen over the last year, particularly by most of the Arab countries.
The UAE and Jordan took the first steps in this when the Emirates reopened its embassy in Damascus and sent its foreign minister to meet President Al-Assad earlier this year. King Abdullah of Jordan also talked by telephone with President Al-Assad. The director of the Saudi intelligence services met his Syrian counterpart last month in Cairo on the margins of a meeting hosted by Egypt of the directors of various Arab intelligence services.
Egypt is open to the readmission of Syria to the Arab League. This would be a development that would re-introduce a certain balance of power not only within the Arab League, but also, and which is more important, in the Arab world at large.
Arab politics and destinies in a transformed Middle East stand to benefit by Syria regaining its seat in the league. I doubt that the ostracism of Syria over the past nine years has served Egyptian interests. Egypt has also recently negotiated with Jordan, Syria and Lebanon a deal under which Cairo will export natural gas to Lebanon through Syria after the US administration gave its tacit go-ahead.
A weakened Syria has not helped any Arab cause or interest. On the contrary, it has led to the further destabilisation of the balance of power between the Arab countries and the three regional powers of Israel, Turkey and Iran. The intensification of the Saudi-Iranian confrontation is just one example in this respect.
If the next Arab Summit in Algeria rescinds the 2012 decision to suspend Syria from the Arab League, it will bring much-needed closure to the unhappy and destabilising “Arab Spring”. Bringing Syria back into the Arab fold will be a turning point in the Middle East that will contribute to a new alignment of Arab forces vis-à-vis the three above-mentioned regional powers. It will open a new chapter in the history of the region in the era of the “Abraham Accords” between some Arab countries and Israel.
We, in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, need a realignment of this sort to defend and protect our national interests in the fierce and merciless struggle for power in the Middle East.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.