Syria was expelled from the Arab League in 2011, a few months after the start of the civil war that tore the country apart and continues to this day. A conflict that has not only affected the Middle East, but has also had a major international impact. Europe has had to face an important exodus of refugees fleeing the country, while some powers such as Iran, Turkey, the United States and Russia have interfered in the conflict to increase their influence in the area. This war, as we can see, also changed relations between Arab countries, represented through the Arab League.
The Arab body considered that Bashar al-Assad's government did not respect the cessation of violence, as demanded by the peace plan established by the League and accepted by Damascus. Moreover, Cairo, the organisation's headquarters, imposed political and economic sanctions on Damascus. However, not all member states were in favour of these sanctions. Algeria, Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq rejected this decision, which was supported by the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia.
The Arab League was founded in 1945 and is made up of 22 countries from both the Middle East and Africa. Originally, in the midst of the decolonisation process, its goal was the independence of Arab countries that were still under European domination. It was also, at the outset, strongly opposed to the creation of the Jewish state. Today, however, some of these countries maintain formal relations with Israel.
Its aim is to improve cooperation and coordination among members. According to its charter, the founding states agreed to cooperate closely on economic, communication, cultural, nationality, welfare, social and health issues. They also agreed to collaborate on military matters, creating a pact in 1950 that committed members to treat acts of aggression against any member state as an act against all. During the Arab Springs, the body played an important role. It supported the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya and subsequently focused on the war in Syria, suspending Damascus and supporting the opposition.
However, this organisation presents major challenges. The Arab League has to deal with disunity and confrontation among some of its members. For example, the rivalry between Morocco and Algeria over the conflict in Western Sahara; or the Gulf countries' accusations of terrorism against Qatar. Moreover, several experts point out that the body is more supportive of rulers than of citizens, whom it does not take much account of.
There is currently a debate over whether Syria should return to the Arab League or not for the time being. Iraq has been one of the countries backing Damascus' return to the body. During a meeting between Iraqi foreign minister Fuad Hussein and Ahmed Aboul Gheit, secretary general of the Arab League, Baghdad announced that it 'supports Syria's return to the Arab League'. Hussein has also pointed out that instability in Syria directly affects security in Iraq. Cairo also believes that Syria's return to the organisation is key to stability in the region. "Damascus' return would be vital for maintaining Arab national security," said Sameh Shoukry, Egypt's foreign minister. However, he stressed the need for the country to "pragmatically demonstrate its willingness to move towards a political solution based on Security Council resolutions". Syria's return to the Arab League can boost the stability process in the country, as well as provide some hope for its citizens. As former Egyptian minister Mohamed el-Orabi explains to Al-Monitor, "the suspension of Syria's membership in the Arab League led to increased foreign intervention". El-Orabi points in particular to Turkey and Iran as key players in the conflict: 'Arab countries must play a clear role in helping to resolve the crisis to protect Arab national security'.
Some Gulf countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, have also shown their support for Syria's rejoining the organisation. Abu Dhabi reopened its embassy in Damascus in 2018, thawing diplomatic relations with the Syrian government. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the foreign minister, believes that Syria's return will help bring about an end to the civil war. Also, a recent cordial meeting between Oman and Syria gives hope for Damascus in its bid to rejoin the body.
On the other hand, there are Arab countries that have not yet expressed their opinion. However, some states such as Qatar or Saudi Arabia are likely to raise more objections to Syria's return. In 2019, the Qatari foreign minister declared that Syria should not return to the Arab League. At a recent meeting in Doha between Russia and Qatar, the minister reiterated his view, according to the Sputnik news agency. In contrast, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov welcomed Syria's return. "I believe it will play a positive role in efforts to stabilise the whole region," he said, according to Russian media. Qatar has been accused of supporting pro-Iranian militias and rebels in the Syrian civil war.
Arab experts believe Syria's return could have very positive effects. The organisation says the other member states could put pressure on and advise the Syrian government to reach a solution to the conflict. They also point out that the suspension of Damascus did not have any positive effect, but rather gave other powers the freedom to interfere in the war.