Six years after the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, in which hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed, and in advance of the annual Arab League summit which is set to take place in Amman, Jordan in late March 2017, there have been in recent months calls from some Arab countries to reinstate Syria as a member of the Arab League. The suspension came on November 12, 2011, several months after the beginning of the uprising in Syria against the regime's oppression of its people, and was to be in force until Syria met its obligations under the Arab proposal for resolving the crisis in the country, put forward by the Arab League. At the same time, it should also be noted that Syria has been represented at two League summits by Syrian opposition groups – in 2013 in Qatar and in 2014 in Kuwait.
Among the countries calling today for reinstating Syria's League membership are Iraq and Egypt, apparently following pressure to do so from Russia. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov himself has called for Syria's reinstatement. Support for its reinstatement has also been expressed by other Arab countries such as Lebanon and Tunisia.
Jordan, which is hosting the summit, has officially expressed reservations about such a move. Jordanian officials have reiterated in the past few weeks that Syria will not be invited to the summit because of Jordan's commitment to the League's suspension; League secretary-general Ahmad Abu Al-Gheit has taken the same position.
The Syrian regime, for its part, has welcomed the calls for its League membership to be reinstated, but many articles in the Syrian government press and in newspapers close to the regime have rejected the idea – and have even stated that before Syria rejoins the League, the League must apologize to it for suspending its membership. It should be noted that some of the articles criticized Egypt for never giving Syria sufficient help, while Iraq, whose government supports the Syrian regime, has been treated more sympathetically by Syrian officials and press and shown appreciation for its calls for Syria's reinstatement.
This report will review the calls in several Arab countries to reinstate Syria in the Arab League and the reactions of the Syrian regime and media to these calls.
Syria's empty seat at the Arab League (image: Arabi21.com, March 28, 2014).
Arab Countries' Calls To Reinstate Syria In Arab League
As noted, in recent months some official elements in Arab countries have begun talking about reinstating Syria in the Arab League, particularly in advance of the annual Arab League summit set to take place at the end of March in Jordan. The calls have come primarily from Egypt, which has recently begin working on a closer relationship with the Syrian regime, as well as from countries with diplomatic ties with Syria, such as Iraq. It is possible that Russia is behind these calls for Syria's reinstatement; in early February 2017, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called for it because, he said, "leaving Damascus out of the Arab League is not helping the peace efforts." Lavrov added that the League would take a more important and more active role if Syria were a member.
In January 2017, the online daily Rai Al-Yawm reported that Egyptian President 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi was pressuring Jordan to invite Syria to the League summit. Another report by the newspaper in early February, prior to a Jordan visit on February 8 by Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukry, that Shukry would convey to Jordanian King 'Abdullah a message from President Al-Sisi. The paper assessed that the message was connected to a Russian initiative to reinstate Syria in the League.
However, Egyptian efforts to get Syria reinstated did not remain behind the scenes. In a March 3, 2017 interview with the Egyptian daily Al-Watan, Minister Shukry emphasized the importance of Syria's reinstatement, saying: "There is no escaping the fact that the idea of reinstating Syria in the Arab League will come up sooner or later, because Syria [was] and will remain an Arab state and a central element in the Arab system."
The Egyptian call to reinstate Syria had been made previously; in a statement published February 13 by the Egyptian parliament's Committee for Arab Affairs, following a discussion concerning the Syrian war, and against the background of talks for the war's resolution in Astana, Kazakhstan in January-February 2017, the committee stressed the years-long strategic relationship between Egypt and Syria. It added that Syria was part of Egyptian national security, condemned the continuation of Syria's absence from the Arab League council, and called the situation "unacceptable."
Another Arab country that is openly demanding Syria's reinstatement is Iraq, which has diplomatic, military, and economic relations with the Syrian regime, and which, in 2011, abstained from the vote on the resolution to suspend it from the League. At the March 3, 2017 Arab League foreign ministers conference in Cairo, a preparatory conference for the upcoming summit, Iraq demanded Lebanon's and Tunisia's support for Syria's reinstatement. In his address, Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim Al-Ja'fari told the conference: "Iraq is urging its Arab brothers to examine their resolution to suspend Syria's membership in the Arab League." The Egyptian daily Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' reported, citing Arab diplomatic sources, that for several months Iraq had been leading a diplomatic battle together with several other Arab countries for Syria's reinstatement. The sources were cited as noting that Lebanon is one of the countries that supported Iraq's demand, which the Gulf states, headed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, had opposed. They added that Minister Al-Ja'fari had discussed the matter with his Jordanian, Syrian, and Lebanese counterparts. It should be noted that the Egyptian position on this matter at the conference was not reported.
Arab League Secretary-General, Top Jordanian Officials Reject Calls For Syria's Reinstatement: Syria Will Not Be Invited To League Summit
Apparently as a result of Saudi and Qatari pressure, Arab League secretary-general Abu Al-Gheit, as well as Jordan, the summit's host, have thus far rejected the calls to reinstate Syria. Thus, in response to Minister Lavrov's call for reinstatement, Abu Al-Gheit said that the matter was subject to a resolution by the organization's member states and was not currently on the agenda. Abu Al-Gheit made similar comments at an Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo on March 7 at which Iraq demanded Syria's reinstatement; he said, "This is not the right time for it." In a March 22, 2017 interview with the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Abu Al-Gheit said that the minute an agreed-upon interim government is established in Syria, it will occupy the Syrian seat at the Arab League.
Jordan has also officially stressed on multiple occasions that it was operating in accordance with Arab League resolutions and would therefore not invite Syria to the League summit. Back in December 2016, Jordanian government spokesman Muhammad Al-Momani said that Syria would not be invited to the summit due to Jordan's commitment to Arab League resolutions. He reiterated this position on several occasions.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Al-Safadi also said that Jordan had no intention of inviting the Syrian regime to the summit for this reason. In response to a question posed by an MP on March 5, Al-Safadi said: "The government has stressed... that it is committed to the Arab League resolution suspending Syria's participation in Arab League summits, and [Syria] will therefore not be invited to the Arab summit in Jordan." Al-Safadi reiterated this position after a meeting with Abu Al-Gheit on March 19.
Jordan also clarified that it would not invite a delegation from the Syrian opposition to attend the summit, as had happened at two separate League summits following the outbreak of the Syria war. Al-Momani stressed that the Syrian flag would be flown alongside other Arab flags at the summit because Syria is part of the Arab ummah, but that there would be no Syrian presence at the summit, in accordance with the League's resolution. He expressed hope that Syria's reinstatement would take place soon, and would involve a representative agreed upon by all the Syrian people.
At a March 19 press conference, Al-Momani added: "Syria will not attend the Arab summit, because its membership has been suspended by Arab League resolution. Therefore, the Syrian seat will remain empty, as it has been in several previous summits since the onset of the crisis. This does not mean that Syria's flag will be absent. There is conflict and warfare among members of the Syrian people, which we hope will end very soon. Syria is present and dear to us all, and we yearn for the day when it is again a [League] member and has a representative agreed upon by all the Syrian people."
It should be mentioned that some voices in the Jordanian government expressed support for Syria's reinstatement. Thus, Prime Ministry Affairs Minister Mamdouh Al-'Abbadi, expressed regret at Syria's absence from the summit, stating that his country had not fully severed relations with Syria.
Syrian Regime, Writers Respond To Calls To Reinstate Syria In The Arab League
The Syrian regime has not remained indifferent to the debate in Arab countries on its League reinstatement – a debate that reflects the improvement in the regime's standing in both the Arab arena and the world at large, and a waning in the status of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are known opponents of the Syrian regime.
On the official level, the regime did welcome the calls for Syria's reinstatement, but many articles in the official and the pro-regime press in Syria harshly criticized the League, stressing that the Syrian people alone will decide when it will rejoin it – and only after it receives an apology from it.
Regime advisor 'Abd Al-Qader Azouz also stressed that Syria's suspension from the League was an injustice and was not in line with the charter of the organization, of which Syria is a founding member. According to him, the suspension was based on lies and is therefore invalid, and legally speaking, Syria remains a member in good standing. He added that it was too early to discuss the regime's position on reinstatement, and that such a reinstatement would only happen when the conditions were right and after the League apologized to Syria.
It should be mentioned that Syria has responded differently to Egyptian and to Iraqi calls for its reinstatement. Egypt, which has lately been seeking rapprochement with the Syrian regime, was criticized for not having done enough to support Syria. On the other hand, Iraq has been praised by Syria for its calls for reinstatement, likely because of the close diplomatic, military, and economic relations between the Iraqi government and the Syrian regime.
Syrian Responses To Egypt's Call: We Expected Greater Support From Egypt; We Will Not Rejoin Arab League Unless It Apologizes
As stated, official Syria welcomed the statement by the Egyptian parliament's Committee for Arab Affairs calling for Syria's League reinstatement. The head of the Syrian parliament's Foreign and Arab Affairs Committee, Botros Morjana, called this an opportunity for cooperation between the two parliaments.
However, articles in the official and pro-regime Syrian press harshly criticized Egypt for not supporting Syria as Syria supported Egypt when the latter was suspended from the Arab League following the 1979 Camp David Accords. The articles also claimed that the decision whether to rejoin the Arab League was up to the Syrian people, and that in any case this would only happen after the Arab League apologized to them and reembraced its Arab identity. It should be mentioned that this is not the first time Egyptian rapprochement efforts are met with a cool Syrian response and with demands for further Egyptian gestures. In November 2016, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem said that he detected "an improvement in Egypt's discourse" vis-à-vis Syria, but not to the extent Syria expected.
Syrian Former Minister: Who Said Syria Even Wants To Rejoin The Arab League? Only The Syrian People, Which Is Furious With Egypt, Will Decide On This
In a February 15, 2017 article in the pro-regime daily Al-Watan, Former Syrian information minister Dr. Mahdi Dakhlallah responded to the Egyptian call to reinstate Syria in the Arab League, saying: "Who said Syria [even] wants to return to the Arab League?... Can Syria rejoin an organization that is controlled and manipulated by a country of 300,000 citizens [i.e., Qatar]? Renewing relations with any country that took part in the aggression against Syria is an issue to be decided by the [Syrian] authorities according to Syria's interests and policy. [Moreover,] rejoining a regional body that is clinically dead [also] requires a popular decision by means of a referendum.
"Egypt's parliamentary Arab Affairs Committee mouthed a demand to return Syria to the Arab League, which became an inert body after Syria's membership and role [in it] were suspended. Where does the powerful Arab League stand on the large issues that are preoccupying the entire Arab world? Where does it [stand] on the crisis in Palestine, Libya, Yemen and Iraq? Is the Egyptian call meant to save Syria or save the Arab League? And under what circumstances will Syria agree to come back and participate in resurrecting [this] inert body? Will the Arab League apologize to the Syrian people and its regime? Will it promise to respect its [own] charter and principles in the future? Will it condemn Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and other countries that have admitted to supporting those who murder the Arab Syrian people?...
"As for our brothers in Egypt, they [only] recently woke up and began expressing feeble faith [in the Syrian army], while their first army, the Arab Syrian army, expected this from the beginning. It expected them [to express] strong faith in it, and also expected intense and direct support from the [Egyptian] army... Why does the Egyptian parliament not demand to return the Egyptian ambassador to Damascus? How is it that the Egyptian Foreign Minister has visited Israel but has not visited Damascus?... The Syrian people's fury with Egypt is immeasurably greater than its fury with any other regional or Arab capital, because one's fury with [a friend] is in direct proportion to one's love for [this friend]...
"The Syrians' first goal is to renew relations with Egypt, whereas the Arab League is at the bottom of their list of priorities today. Let me just quote what President Assad said, sincerely and clearly, about Syria's return to the Arab League in a 2013 interview on Al-Mayadeen [TV]: 'The decision to rejoin [the Arab league] must be a popular decision. As an official, I do not wish to put myself in place of the entire Syrian people. Syria's presence in the Arab League or absence from it indicates nothing regarding Syria's Arab identity. The Arab League never reflected the Arab identity, except in the days of [the late Egyptian president Gamal] 'Abd Al-Nasser.' On another occasion he said that 'Syria's return to the Arab League is a decision only the Syrian people can make. The Arab League reflects only the situation of the Arabs and their dire deterioration. Therefore, [Syria's] absence [from this body] or the suspension of its membership in it are not a problem. The important question is who suffers [from this situation]? Can a body exist without a heart?'..."
Columnist In Syrian Daily: The So-Called Arab League Must Reembrace The Heart Of Arabism, Apologize To Syrians
Sharp criticism of Egypt was also voiced by Rif'at Al-Badawi, a Lebanese journalist who writes for the Syrian daily Al-Watan. He said: "[In the past] we supported and assisted Egypt, especially by making efforts to reinstate it in the Arab League after it was expelled from it [in 1979] following the Camp David Accords. In fact, our government must be credited with exerting pressure to welcome Egypt back into the Arab fold, [efforts we made] because we consider Egypt to be the body of the Arab [world]. [But] I wonder why the family of Arab [peoples] is doomed to be a body without a heart, for Syria is the beating heart of Arabism...
"Anwar Sadat's Egypt recognized Israel and signed a degrading peace agreement with it, yet it was welcomed back into the Arab League. But proud Syria, which has refused to recognize Israel and has rejected any degrading peace agreement with it, was ultimately suspended... from the so-called Arab League. This is because it never approved any agreement that involved betraying [its] Arab brethren as Egypt did, and because it refused all the enticements offered it and never relinquished Palestine, seeing it as an integral part of Arab Syria, and never gave up its principles, its power, its honor, its identity and its affiliation with the Arab nation. That is why its membership in the so-called Arab League was suspended..."
Addressing the call of the Egyptian parliamentary committee for Syria's league reinstatement, Al-Badawi added: "As if Syria is [even] interested in returning to [that] nest of conspiracies... No, gentlemen. In the time of [Egyptian] leader Gamal 'Abd Al-Nasser and the late [Syrian] leader Hafez Al-Assad, the body called the Arab League was a respectable [organization] with an Arab affiliation and influential opinions. But today, the so-called Arab League has become a nest of conspiracies against Palestine, Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen and against Arab identity itself, and has become a body without a heart. The decision whether Syria should return to the so-called Arab League is in the hands of the Syrian people alone. As for what the Syrians want, the bottom line is that they do not want Syria to return to the Arab League. Rather, they want the Arab League to reembrace true Arabism and Arab affiliation and reembrace the heart of Arabism, namely Syria, and apologize to the [Syrian] people, instead of the other way around."
Syria's Response To Iraqi Call To Reinstate It In Arab League: We Welcome The Call, But It Is Meaningless
Syria's response to the Iraqi call to return it to the Arab League was much milder than its response to the Egyptian statement. In a phone conversation with his Iraqi counterpart Ibrahim Al-Ja'fari , Syrian Foreign Minister Mu'allem thanked Iraq for its "courageous stance" at the March 7, 2017 Arab League meeting and even invited Al-Ja'fari to visit Damascus in the near future. Regime advisor 'Abd Al-Qader 'Azouz welcomed the Iraqi foreign minister's call and said that it derives from the fact that both countries are facing terrorism and Iraq therefore understands Syria's need for united Arab action. Articles in the official and pro-regime Syrian press expressed a similar sentiment.
Syrian Columnist: Syria Will Not Rejoin Arab League In Its Present Form
'Ali Nasrallah, a columnist for the official Syrian daily Al-Thawra, welcomed Iraq's call, describing it as "noble," but said that Syria would not return to the Arab League in its present form: "Iraq's call... is undoubtedly worthy of appreciation. [True,] this was apparently an independent [Iraqi] initiative [that was launched] without coordinating with Syria or even consulting it regarding the efficacy [of the move] and whether it should be taken or not. But it was nevertheless a noble measure that has its motivations and objectives, which may be nothing more that a need to mend what can [still] be mended...
"The Syrian view is summed up in the question most people ask spontaneously: Who is supposed to return to whom, Syria to the Arab League or the Arab League to Syria? The Syrian people's paper [Al-Thawra] opposes [not only the first] option but even the second, if the Arab League retains its present form and structure. This is because Syria – with its national inclination, its resistance activity, its pioneering position, its prominent status and its people, [who have love of] Palestine flowing in their very veins – had a thousand reservations about the Arab League's performance and role even when it was still a member of [this organization] and one of its founders. So how can [Syria] now suffice with raising its flag in the halls [of the Arab League] and at its gates, when nothing there has changed? What would be the point of that? That is what the Syrians are asking.
"The [Arab] League is supposed to unite [the Arab countries], its content is supposed to serve the goal for which it was founded, and its activity is supposed to be clear and effective. As long as it fails [to meet these criteria] because it has been hijacked by the Bedouins of the Gulf who have turned it into a den of [our] enemies after paralyzing it, Syria has no need for it and it does not seem to have any need for Syria... This does not mean that Syria has given up looking for other formulas to unite and strengthen [the Arabs], out of its belief in its Arab identity, in the justness of the Palestinian cause and in its commitment to promoting it. [Looking for new formulas] is exactly what it is doing..."
Syrian Columnist: The Arab League Is Isolated, Wretched And Without A Role; It Must Be Dismantled And Rebuilt From Scratch
Dr. Bassam Abu 'Abdallah, a columnist for the Al-Watan daily, wrote in a similar vein: "Iraqi Foreign Minister [Ibrahim Ja'afari] deserves [our] gratitude and appreciation for his honest pan-Arab stance vis-à-vis Syria and its people, for he based his call on the historical truth about the Syrian people and the central role [it played] in the Arab League... At the same time, I apologize to Ibrahim Al-Ja'fari , because with his diplomatic and political experience he [surely] understands that there is a need to dismantle the Arab League and rebuild it from scratch – for it has become a regional organization that conspires against its [own] member states and destroys them one by one! So what League are we talking about, friends, and what Arabs and what Islam?!
"Do we, the [various] Arab countries with our different regimes, [really] have shared and agreed-upon goals regarding fateful issues? I doubt that, because some Arab countries have a covert alliance with Israel and need the Arab League as a fig leaf to cover their shame and as [a body] to carry out their plots!...
"Who says we will ever forget that this [Arab] League legitimized the partition of Sudan, the aggression against Iraq and the killing of Libyans, Syrians and Yemenis? And who said the Russians will forget the decision [to impose] an economic siege and cruel sanctions upon them? [And who says] we will forget that the Arab foreign ministers convened to impose sanctions on the Syrian media, not on the Zionist media?...
"The ones to decide about Syria's return to the Arab League will be the Syrian people... Whoever wants to isolate Syria [will find] that he is isolating himself. The Arab League is now isolated, wretched and without a role... Syria's return to the Arab League will not occur at the convenience of the Arab League, as [its secretary-general] Abu Al-Gheith claimed. Rather, it will occur on the terms of the victor, namely the terms of President Bashar Al-Assad, which will be set out at the moment of truth and at his convenience..."
 Alarabiya.net, November 2, 2011. The Arab plan for resolving the Syria crisis, proposed by the Arab League on November 2, 2011, called for the Syrian army to retreat from the cities, the Syrian regime to release political prisoners, and talks to be held with Syrian opposition representatives; see Alarabiya.net, November 12, 2011.
 The 2013 summit in Qatar was attended by then- president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces Mu'adh Al-Khatib, who was even recognized as the official representative of the Syrian people. In the 2014 summit in Kuwait, Al-Khatib's successor Ahmad Al-Jarba was not recognized as the official Syrian representative, but he did speak at the summit. Altahreer.com, March 28, 2015.
 Al-Hayat (London), February 2, 2017.
 On Egypt's position in support of the Syrian regime, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1274, The Egypt-Saudi Dispute Over A Resolution To The Syria Crisis Goes Public, October 18, 2016 and MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1284, Growing Egypt-Syria Rapprochement Includes Al-Sisi Statement In Support Of Syrian Army, Reports On Egyptian Military Aid To Syria, November 30, 2016. See also the London daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi's March 16, 2017 report on Egypt's participation in the March 14-15, 2017 Astana talks, during which the proposal that Egyptian and Jordanian forces be deployed to preserve the peace among the forces in Syria was discussed.
 Al-Hayat (London), February 2, 2017. It should be noted that in a phone conversation with his Russian counterpart, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Al-Safadi invited a Russian delegation to participate in the opening ceremony of the League summit in Amman at the end of the month. Al-Ghad (Jordan), March 16, 2017.
 Al-Rai Al-Yawm (London), January 3, 2017, February 7, 2017.
 Al-Watan (Egypt), March 10, 2017.
 Al-Yawm Al-Saba' (Egypt), February 13, 2017.
 Alarabiya.net, November 12, 2011.
 Elaph.com, March 7, 2017; Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), March 8, 2017.
 Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), March 8, 2017.
 Al-Hayat (London), February 2, 2017.
 Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), March 8, 2017.
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 22, 2017.
 Al-Ghad (Jordan), December 8, 2016; March 20, 2017.
 Albosala.com, March 5, 2017; Ammonnews.net, March 19, 2017.
 Al-Ghad reported that the Syrian flag has been hoisted in Amman alongside the flags of the countries attending the summit. Al-Ghad (Jordan), March 19, 2017. It should be mentioned that the Syrian flag was also flown in previous summits in which Syria did not participate, except in the 2013 Doha summit, which flew the flag of the Syrian opposition that represented Syria at that summit. See Aljazeera.net, March 28, 2015.
 Al-Ghad (Jordan), March 20, 2017.
 Al-Ghad (Jordan), March 8, 2017.
 Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), March 8, 2017.
 Al-Watan (Syria), March 6, 2017.
 SANA (Syria), November 21, 2016.
 This is an allusion to the United Arab Republic, a political union formed by Egypt and Syria in 1958, which existed until 1961. The union also included the creation of a joint military force, consisting of the First Army, which comprised Syrian troops, and the Second and Third Armies, which were Egyptian.
 Al-Watan (Syria), February 15, 2017.
 Al-Watan (Syria), February 20, 2017.
 Burathanews.c om, March 13, 2017.
 Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), March 8, 2017.
 Al-Thawra (Syria), March 9, 2017.
 Al-Watan (Syria), March 9, 2017.