While the Arab League has become little more than an expensive talking shop for heads of state from 22 Arab countries, Syria’s 2011 suspension from the organisation it co-founded in 1945 was indicative of the country’s isolation from fellow Arabs that Syria’s governing Ba’ath party encourages unity among under the ideology of Arab Nationalism. As such, during the ensuing conflict in Syria, Damascus strengthened partnerships with non-Arab states, notably Russia and Iran while also maintaining cordial ties with the geographically faraway DPRK, as well as China.
Now though, the wealthiest countries of the Arab world that severed relations with Damascus at the beginning of the current conflict are rapidly flocking back to the Syrian capital. In December of 2018, the UAE became the first Arab state to re-open its embassy in Damascus. Bahrain likewise reopened its embassy in Damascus days later. Of course, both embassy re-openings came shortly after Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir became the first head of state from an Arab League member state to set foot in Syria since the beginning of the 2011 conflict.
With reports abounding that Kuwait will be the next Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member to re-open its Damascus embassy, it looks likely that the richest Arab state and de-facto GCC leader Saudi Arabia will shortly follow as well as Saudi Arabia’s Egyptian ally – the largest state in the Arab world.
Therefore the question is not if but when Syria will be formally invited back into the Arab League. A further question that is less discussed is where will such a re-initiation take place? India may be the answer to this last question.
While Bashar al-Assad or even one of his top officials travelling to an Arab league summit in an Arab country might still be somewhat premature given recent years of sustained hostility and mistrust, by holding an Arab League summit on neutral ground, one could potentially help to break the proverbial ice between Syria’s leadership and its fellow Arabs in a less melodramatic fashion.
This could happen sooner rather than later as India’s hosting of all 22 Arab League states at a special summit in New Delhi will take place on the 31st of January. Notably, India’s Economic Times mentioned the ‘Syria factor’ in their report on the Arab League summit in India. According to the Economic Times,
“If Syria is admitted to the grouping in the intervening period it could be among the participants at the meet, said people aware of the matter”.
The article also accurately states that unlike many nations, India did not close its diplomatic mission in Damascus during the present conflict. Beyond this, there remains the fact that many in India were naturally sympathetic with the government of Bashar al-Assad even when it was globally unfashionable to voice such feelings. The inconvenient truth behind this matter is that because various forces of political Islam were working to oust the secular Arab leader, those in India who habitually favour forces which oppose all forms of political Islam (including deeply moderate political Islam and moderate Sunni political Islam more specifically), were automatically inclined towards a Syrian government that likewise shared the same side as India in the Cold War.
But India-Syria relations go further than sentimental feelings and a Cold War nostalgia. In the summer of 2018, Syria’s ambassador in New Delhi invited India to participate in the rebuilding of the country, something that many assumed would mostly be the task of India’s neighbour China. Likewise, Federation of Indian Export Organisations (FIEO) President Ganesh Kumar Gupta has openly boasted of pushing for increased bilateral trade between Damascus and New Delhi.
Taken as a whole, as India has no serious disputes with any Arab state in spite of Prime Minister Modi’s re-orientating of India towards Israel (a de-facto ally of Saudi Arabia in any case), New Delhi could potentially be the perfect location for Syria to at some level be brought back into the fold of the Arab League. This could amount to Syria being invited to the conference on the 31st first either via the UAE or even through an Indian intermediary. Otherwise it could be that Syria’s “presence” at the conference may be limited to a statement of intent by Arab League members to invite Damascus back into the organisation.
For the Arabs, India provides a convenient means of saving face after years of rallying against Assad’s government and for India, it allows nationalistic supporters of Modi’s government to over-hype a diplomatic victory that in reality was something that the Arabs would have found some way to do with or without the summit in New Delhi.
Because New Delhi apparently fancies itself as a rival to China in respect of the rebuilding process in Syria, for the Indian government, the conference could serve as a means of enticing wealthy Arab nations on the road to Damascus into throwing some cash at New Delhi.
As Donald Trump already stated that Saudi Arabia will fund the lion’s share of post-war rebuilding in Syria, anyone who wants these potentially lucrative contracts may well have to first pass through Saudi Arabia which will likely act as the bank behind Syria’s post-war reconstruction. Thus, there is a clear strategic incentive for India to help facilitate a process of “kissing and making up” between Damascus and the rest of the Arab League. In this sense, the forthcoming conference in New Delhi is clearly one of the more bizarre examples of attempted win-win diplomacy in recent years.