Syria Rejoins Arab League
15 May 2023
First published in Democracy Delivered - Issue 3, a monthly newsletter published by the Centre for Research on Democracy.
The Arab League has voted to welcome Syria back into its ranks after a 12-year suspension. In doing so, they have helped legitimise a violent authoritarian regime.
On Sunday the 7th of May, Syria was readmitted into the Arab League - a club of 22 countries set up in 1945 to promote cooperation in the region - after an almost 12-year suspension. According to League members, the readmission is a necessary next step in the political process of addressing the humanitarian crisis which has engulfed most of Syria since the outbreak of its bloody civil war.
Syria’s civil war - in which over 300,000 civilians were killed, 100,000 imprisoned or disappeared, and millions displaced - finds its origins in a 2011 protest against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It was Assad’s violent suppression of these pro-democracy protests which triggered the conflict and led to the country’s original suspension from the Arab League.
Following more than a decade of conflict, Assad has managed to retain control of the bulk of Syria, aided by the support of Russia and Iran. This is despite many Arab League members offering significant material assistance to the anti-Assad forces, as well as the imposition of economic sanctions by both League members and the international community.
It is perhaps Assad’s dogged hold on power that has brought about this new approach. Syria’s readmission forms part of a trend within the region - led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - to reengage with the Assad regime, rather than continue the attempt to topple it by force or sanction. However, the League’s poor history of conflict resolution leaves one wondering how much real hope such an approach offers.
As a result, numerous members of the international community remain deeply sceptical, with the United States and the United Kingdom both voicing opposition. Syrian refugees across the world have also expressed their dismay at the readmission, with many activist groups arguing that it illustrates a disregard for the protection of human rights within the region.
What is clear, however, is that in readmitting Syria the Arab League has handed a significant symbolic victory to one of the region’s bloodiest anti-democratic leaders. The message has been sent that, when a country’s leader wages a violent and unjust war against their own citizens, they need only wait a decade or two before being welcomed back to the table. The people of Syria, however, millions of whom have fled to distant corners of the world, still await their own invitation to return.