Once a pariah, Bashar al-Assad now welcomed back in Arab fold

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Cairo: The Arab League has readmitted Syria after more than a decade of suspension, consolidating a regional push to normalise ties with President Bashar al-Assad, a decision criticised by Washington but hailed in Moscow.

The decision allows Syria to resume its participation in Arab League meetings immediately, while calling for a resolution of the crisis resulting from its civil war, including the flight of refugees to neighbouring countries and drug smuggling across the region.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad welcomes Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi at the Presidential Palace in Damascus last week.Credit: Getty

While Arab states including the United Arab Emirates have pressed to end Assad’s isolation, some, like the United States, have been opposed to full normalisation without a political solution to the Syrian conflict, seeking conditions for its return.

Syria’s membership was suspended in 2011 after Assad’s crackdown on street protests against his government that led to the civil war. Several Gulf states including Saudi Arabia began backing rebel groups fighting to oust Assad from power.

Assad later regained control over much of Syria with help of main allies Iran and Russia, but the war has killed nearly a half million people since March 2011 and displaced half of the country’s pre-war population of 23 million. Syria remains splintered with its economy in ruins.

Sunday’s decision said Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt and the Arab League’s Secretary General would form a ministerial group to liaise with the Syrian government and seek solutions to the crisis through reciprocal steps.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, once reprimanded by other Arab nations, is welcome again.Credit: Getty Images

Practical measures included continuing efforts to facilitate the delivery of aid in Syria, according to a copy of the decision seen by Reuters.

The decision represents a victory for Damascus, albeit a largely symbolic one. Given that Western sanctions against Assad’s government remain in place, it is not expected to lead to a quick release of reconstruction funds in the war-battered country.

Syria’s readmission follows a Jordanian initiative laying out a roadmap for ending Syria’s conflict that includes addressing the issues of refugees, missing detainees, drug smuggling and Iranian militias in Syria.

Jordan is both a destination and a main transit route to the oil-rich Gulf countries for captagon, a highly addictive amphetamine produced in Syria, and has hinted it could take unilateral action to curb the multibillion-dollar trade.

A Jordanian official said Syria would need to show it was serious about reaching a political solution, since this would be a pre-condition to lobbying for any lifting of Western sanctions, a crucial step for funding post-war reconstruction.

Qatar, which had previously opposed Syria’s return, said its position had not changed and it hoped regional consensus could be “a motive for the Syrian regime to address the roots of the crisis”, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson told state news agency QNA.

“This doesn’t mean that the Syria crisis has been resolved, on the contrary,” he said. “But it allows the Arab [states] for the first time in years to communicate with the Syrian government to discuss all the problems,” Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit told reporters in Cairo.

Syria called on Arab states to show “mutual respect”.

A US State Department spokesperson said Washington shared the goals of Arab partners in Syria, including building security and stability, but remained “sceptical of Assad’s willingness to take the steps necessary to resolve Syria’s crisis”.

“We do not believe Syria merits readmission into the Arab League at this time,” the spokesperson said, adding that US sanctions would remain in full effect.

But Russia, an Assad ally, hailed his readmission.

“Moscow welcomes this long-awaited step, the logical result of the process, which has gained momentum, of returning Syria to the ‘Arab family’,” Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, said in a statement.

Recently, Arab states have been trying to reach consensus on whether to invite Assad to an Arab League summit on May 19 in Riyadh to discuss the pace and conditions for normalising ties.

Responding to a question over whether Assad could participate, Aboul Gheit told reporters: “If he wishes, because Syria, starting from this evening, is a full member of the Arab League”.

Saudi Arabia had long resisted restoring relations with Assad but said after its recent rapprochement with Iran – Syria’s key regional ally – that a new approach was needed with Damascus.

Reuters, AP

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