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Syria’s return to the Arab League is unrealistic in the short-term

Beirut Economic Summit
It seems that supporters of the Syrian regime in Lebanon never miss an opportunity to push for normalization with Damascus. And as the Arab League’s economic summit is taking place in Beirut on Jan. 20, the March 8 Alliance is using the upcoming meeting to call for the reinstatement of Syria into the Arab League and, ultimately, its reintegration into the Arab World.

The call to reinstate Syria into the Arab League appears to some in diplomatic circles as merely wishful thinking. A well informed Arab diplomatic source, who spoke to L’Orient-Le Jour on condition of anonymity, said that it is a talking point for “politically oriented media ranting” and that Syria is unlikely to be reinstated, at least at the moment. The process of allowing Syria to come back to the Arab League is more complex than what appears in media articles of some countries, “in this case, Lebanon, Iran and Russia,” the source added.

The confusion around the topic comes from the recent announcement that the United Arab Emirates is reopening its embassy in Damascus, which came shortly after Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir visited the Syrian capital. The succession of events pushed "certain parties to exploit this subject by placing it in the perspective of efforts that would be deployed for the reintegration of Syria to the Arab League,” according to the diplomat.

The Arab League is not discussing Syria’s potential reinstatement, and the subject has not even been raised within the organization, the diplomat continued, and likely will not be anytime soon. "As long as Syria's future is being defined by non-Arab countries, the return of Damascus to the League is hardly possible,” the source said. Some countries are using the media to try to push the reinstatement agenda “precisely because they do not have an effective political lobby card,” the source added.

Hezbollah’s pressure

In response to the regime’s crackdown on peaceful protests, the 22-member Arab League suspended in November 2011 the membership of Syria in a vote supported by 18 countries and opposed by Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. At the time, the move was a severe snub for the Syrian regime, which refused to comply with the Arab League’s plan to end the crisis.

 In March 2013, the head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC), Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, sat in Syria’s seat in the Arab League during a summit in Qatar. But the seat has been left vacant ever since.

In recent days in Lebanon, pro-Syrian parties such as Hezbollah and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) have been calling for Syria’s exoneration and direct or indirect return to the Lebanese political scene. At the Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc’s meeting last Thursday, members of the party said that Lebanon should invite Syria to the upcoming Arab League economic summit “given the positive Arab climate in favor of Syria’s return to the diplomatic scene.”

Hezbollah did override the fact that Lebanese officials cannot undertake such an initiative before the Arab League does so itself. The decision belongs solely to the Council of the Arab League, the organization’s principal institution, which brings together the foreign ministers of the member states and decided to freeze Syria’s membership in 2011.

Gebran Bassil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), made clear on Friday that inviting Syria to the Economic Summit is the Arab League’s responsibility, not Lebanon’s, while voicing support for Hezbollah’s position. "Lebanon can take the initiative of Syria’s return to the Arab League… It is in the interest of Lebanon,” he said.

Bassil also said that Lebanon’s interest in normalizing ties with Syria is linked to the possibility of participating in Syria’s reconstruction, a topic he hopes to raise at the Economic Summit. But according to the diplomatic source, the topic is not listed on the summit’s agenda, which was set on Dec. 20. "Only the questions relating to the economic and social situation of the member countries will be mentioned," the source said.

"Lebanon is ready to host the summit"

The issue of whether or not Syria should be reinstated as an Arab League member “seems to preoccupy Lebanese political circles more than elsewhere in the Arab World. So much so that we now have the impression that this political topic could almost replace the real, exclusively economic agenda planned for this summit,” the diplomat continued.

However, a source close to the Lebanese committee organizing the summit confirmed that Beirut cannot take the initiative to invite Syria. "Any decision that is not endorsed by the Arab League could provoke a boycott against Lebanon and lead to an alteration in the number of participants and the level of state representation. And, contrary to what has been said, the Syrians understand the Lebanese point of view,” the source said.

Sixteen countries have already confirmed their participation in the summit. "None of the 22 invited members has canceled to date,” a source close to the presidential palace in Baabda, which is coordinating the logistics of the event, told OLJ.

The same source also dismissed rumors regarding a possible cancellation due to the ongoing failure to form a new government. The rumors were “unfounded,” the source said, adding: "Lebanon is completely ready to host this summit. The government taking care of current affairs is still operational.”

It is still unclear, however, who will represent the Arab League’s member states at the summit. Theoretically, the heads of state, kings and emirs of the various members should attend. But some states may send lower level delegations. So far, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi has confirmed his participation as well as the Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, who will preside over the summit.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 5th of January 2019)

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