Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s surprise visit to Damascus in mid December was the first of its kind by an Arab president since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution and its escalation into a civil war sponsored by rival foreign powers. An upcoming visit by Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz will be the second. Both Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates recently announced plans to reopen their embassies in the Syrian capital, while the head of Syria’s National Security Bureau visited Cairo to meet the head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service in December.
These events appear to signal a forthcoming restoration of the Syrian administration’s Arab League membership as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people after a seven-year freeze in diplomatic relations. Yet four separate diplomatic sources agree that the restoration of relations, or what they call “Arab normalization,” with the Syrian regime will not happen soon, as several obstacles remain in its path.
The Arab League suspended Syrian participation in its activities in November 2011 in an act of protest against the Bashar al-Assad administration’s brutal suppression of demonstrations demanding democracy during the heyday of the Arab Spring. Since Bashir’s visit last month it has been predicted that Assad or a representative will attend the next Arab summit, to be held in Tunisia in March. Some have even speculated that he will attend the upcoming economic summit in Beirut this month. During his visit, Bashir said Sudan’s position on the Syrian crisis is “identical” to the Russian position—that political reconciliation is a necessity and that no settlement is viable without President Bashar al-Assad. According to several media outlets, Bashir arrived in Damascus on board a Russian plane, and with support from Russian President Vladimir Putin as part of “the Russian efforts for normalization with Assad.”
However, speaking to Mada Masr, a Lebanese government source in the March 8 Alliance, which is loyal to the Syrian government, says: “Speculations about the Syrian government’s participation in meetings organized by the Arab League are exaggerated. We must not forget that there is an earlier resolution by the League to suspend Syrian representation, which means the league must, at the least, vote against this resolution and repeal it—and then the Syrian government can be invited.” The source adds: “The economic summit in Beirut will, nevertheless, see intensified discussions between Arab countries on the suspension’s nullification, which is advocated by several key members, despite Saudi Arabia’s continued adherence to its well-known position.”
Speaking to Mada Masr, an international diplomatic source close to the Syrian conflict agrees: “A wide-ranging Arab openness to Syria will not arise in the near future. Rejection is not limited to Saudi Arabia — it is maintained by a number of influential countries in the region. The Sudanese president’s surprise visit to Damascus should not be overestimated.”
Meanwhile an Egyptian government source tells Mada that a breakthrough in relations between the two countries is unlikely in the near future — ruling out a sudden change in diplomatic representation between Cairo and Damascus — although he did point out that major developments took place in industrial, agricultural and cultural cooperation between the two countries in 2018.
A Syrian government source also rules out a ministerial or presidential visit between Cairo and Damascus in the next few months, saying: “We are well aware of the Egyptian position. There are many areas in which we cooperate, economically and even on military and security matters, but we believe that our brothers in Egypt would not favor such a visit before the Arab League repeals its decision to suspend Syrian representation from its bodies.”
The head of Syria’s National Security Bureau, Ali Mamluk, arrived in Cairo on December 22 at the invitation of the head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service, Major General Abbas Kamel, to discuss security and political issues and counter-terrorism efforts, according to the official Syrian news agency said. It was Mamluk’s second declared visit to Cairo, after a 2016 meeting with the then head of the General Intelligence Directorate, Major General Khaled Fawzy.
In official talks with Western officials, both at home and abroad, Cairo has shown a willingness to suggest that Assad represents a good solution for the Syrian conflict, because he is seen as a symbol for “the cohesion of the national state.” While this is seen as stemming from a like-minded attitude towards the suppression of anti-dictatorship protests, the continued fragmentation of Syria’s opposition, the absence of a real alternative to Assad from within his regime and a fear of Syria disintegrating in a way that would escalate regional unrest have also made Cairo — and Western officials — reconsider the possibility of Assad playing a role in the country’s transition.
Russian attempts to facilitate “Arab normalization” with the Assad regime have met with counter efforts by the United States. The international source says that Washington bases its hostile stance toward the Syrian government on the latter’s recent alliance with Iran, regardless of its crackdown on opposition, and is still pressing Cairo and Abu Dhabi to keep the Assad regime under political siege pending a real move forward in political settlement talks. The diplomat adds that talks between the US envoy to Syria and countries in the region maintain this approach, as will US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on his visit to the region, including Egypt, this month.
In mid December Russia’s ambassador to Damascus, Alexander Yefimov, said that the UAE is preparing to reopen its embassy in Syria. Various online accounts published photos showing maintenance works underway at the embassy building, which has been closed since 2011.
The Egyptian government source says the sudden decision by US President Donald Trump to withdraw troops from Syria later this year, without coordinating with his Arab allies, has raised their concerns regarding broader Turkish-Iranian control over Syria. In the first months of 2018, the US launched limited military attacks on Assad’s military capabilities after receiving preliminary information about his government’s use of chemical weapons against civilians in oppositional cities. The US president described Syria’s president at the time as “Animal Assad”.
The Egyptian source adds that the new UN envoy to Syria, Norwegian Geir Pedersen, plans to formulate a more productive Arab role in Syria’s political settlement. He was preceded by Staffan de Mistura, whose efforts fell short of establishing a Syrian Constitutional Committee.