Maghreb countries with regional ambitions should take note of Syria’s return to the Arab League as Assad’s suspension in the first place broke the house rules of this talk shop and such a banal injustice might be played out against them one day
After being suspended from its League of Arab States (LAS) since November, 2011, Syria has been welcomed back into the Arab fold on 8 May. The consensual decision, opposed only by Qatar, has been hailed as victory for President Bashar al–Assad and his government. He is also invited to join the upcoming LAS summit scheduled to convene in Saudi Arabia on 19 May. Why Syria was suspended in the first place and what its return signifies if anything will come later.
Now that Syria is back let’s imagine that at the upcoming LAS summit Damascus demands the organization’s support in demanding the departure of all Turkish troops illegally stationed in the country. Or better still what if it asks the summiteers to draft a strongly worded statement condemning Israeli for its almost weekly bombing of Syria. How many LAS members would support any of such requests? Very doubtful such requests could get consensus despite the fact that both are legitimate and worthy causes of freedom and independence LAS been founded to champion. But why such demands are too much to ask for from LAS which Syria helped establish in 1945?
The simple answer is this: nearly one third of LAS members have already normalised ties and became closer to Israel than to Syria. The same could be said about Turkiye who has become an ally of other Arab countries who were initially championing the idea of toppling Mr. Al-Assad. Over the last decade Ankara, who has troops in Syria, Qatar and Libya have all become more influential in Arab affairs than, say Riyadh which is considered major regional power and big LAS member.
Back to Syria is suspension from LAS and whether the decision was really legal. Damascus at the earlier stages of the protests against President Al-Assad was presented with LAS sponsored plan to end the violence in the country and stop cracking down on civil protests. For its own reasons Damascus failed to fully implement that plan which included changes to its system of government already accused of being “dictatorship” and far less democratic. Within the context of the so called “Arab Spring” at that time the decision to suspend Syria was politically correct and makes some sense but for a host of different reasons.
Basically Syria was suspended not for breaching LAS’ charter or violating any norms set by the regional grouping. In fact the very idea of demanding, back in 2011, of Syria to change its system of government is violation of article 8 of LAS charter which dictates that government types in each member state is to be respected by all members. The same article also says each member states “shall pledge to abstain from any action calculated to change established systems of government.” This means Damascus in when not implementing the LAS plan to end the violence and transition to more “democratic” system is actually violation of LAS’ own charter. Also decision of this type and magnitude are supposed to be adopted with LAS by consensuses not by the majority of votes. At least three counties rejected suspending Syria.
This means suspending Syria was and still is illegal and should have not been adopted in the first place. However LAS charter does not provide any judicial process for member countries to legally challenge what they object too. The only proposed mechanism was an Arab court of Justice but it is still proposal and never fully established.
In international relations norms a country’s membership of any entity can be suspended first and foremost either because that country wanted to or because it violated the treaty of that entity or group. A good example of this is the Brexit case when the United Kingdom chose to leave the EU by deceptive referendum. However even after its departure the UK still have to honour its obligations under the EU treaty for years to come. The EU treaty very clearly details when and how a country could leave the union. LAS’s founding treaty however does not have any conditions or clues that enable any member to leave LAS or be expelled from it.
Having Syria back into LAS is also illegal for at least two reasons: one, it was justified on the bases of its suspension over a decade ago, and two, Syria failed to comply with the already illegal roadmap that was presented to Damascus by LAS to end the violence which amount to violation of its independence and a blatant meddling in its own internal affairs. This particular point is clearly stated in LAS’ founding treaty already.
In fact LAS is making a mockery of itself by suspending Syria and welcoming it back years later when nothing has changed in Syria except the fact that Mr. Al-Assad won the war to topple him. That scenario most likely would have resulted in Syria becoming a Western puppet state like Libya and other victims of the so called “Arab Spring” fever.
Rejecting readmitting Syria into LAS, Qatar justified its position by that very point. In a way Doha wanted to claim the high moral ground here which is an irony itself. Qatar is far from being democratic by any standards and does not contrast a great deal with other LAS members including Syria itself. On top of that Doha played a leading role in preaching other LAS members about democracy and pumped $ millions to recruit, train and arm many “rebel” groups fighting to end Al-Assad’s reign. However it contributed next to zero to help the millions of Syrians who were internally displaced or fled Syria altogether. Qatar, similar to other Gulf States, accepted less than 300 Syrians seeking asylum or humanitarian protection. For a Syrian citizen today to enter Qatar is far more difficult than entering the EU! Qatar also invested heavily in waves of PR campaigns to rally other countries to boycott Syria and isolate it and for it to see all that gone is painful defeat and catastrophic foreign policy failure.
However for Syria rejoining LAS is worthless in terms of actual returns to the country and its well being. Syrian territories today are occupied by Israel, Turkiye, the United States and a host of terror groups. What Syria really needs is for LAS to activate the Arab Defence Treaty which obliges other LAS members to come to its defence. But that is wishful thinking and Syria knows this very well.
However Damascus is likely to make small political and diplomatic gains by being back in LAS. First and foremost this will provide some legitimacy to Damascus within LAS and would facilitate countries like Morocco to normalise ties with Syria. Morocco expelled the Syrian ambassador in 2012 and with Syria back into the fold it will be hard to maintain its present policy of boycott.
The author is an academic and award winning journalist and can be followed at @MFetouri