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October 4, 2019 No.
1476

Warm Encounter Between Arab League Secretary-General, Syrian Regime Representatives On Margins Of UNGA Reignites Speculation About Syria's Reinstatement In Arab League

By: O. Peri and Y. Yehoshua*

Unexpectedly, on the margins of the 74th session of the UN General Assembly, Arab League secretary-general Ahmad Abu Al-Gheit approached the Syrian delegation, greeted Syrian Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem and called him "brother," shook his hand and the hand of his deputy Faisal Al-Miqdad, kissed them both, and said he was happy to see them.


Abu Al-Gheit (right) shakes Al-Mu'allem's hand (Source: Aljazeera.net, September 28, 2019)

To watch a MEMRI TV clip of the encounter, click below

Apparently, this friendliness towards the Syrian leadership on the part of the secretary-general of the Arab League – which suspended Syria's membership on November 12, 2011 because of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's harsh repression of the Arab Spring protests in the country[1] – is further evidence of an uptick in Syria's status in the Arab world and of the erosion of Arab opposition to the Syrian regime.[2]

For some three years, a number of Arab states – including Egypt, Iraq, Tunisia, Lebanon, Algeria, and the Palestinian Authority – have been calling to allow Syria back in to the Arab League.[3] UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash even stated, in a June 7, 2018 interview, that "expelling Syria from the Arab League was a mistake."[4] In addition, the Arab Youth and Environment Union, which belongs to the Arab League, announced on October 2 that it would reinstate Syria as a member in the next few days.[5]

The calls to reinstate Syria as an Arab League member and regret for expelling it are part of a trend in the Arab world of rapprochement vis-à-vis the Syrian regime. Arab states have come to terms with the failure of moves to bring down the Assad regime, and with the fact that, as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman said in March 2018, "Bashar is staying."[6] Additionally, some hoped that rapprochement with Syria would curb Iran's establishment there. Accordingly, throughout the past two years, many Arab countries, including some that were part of the anti-Assad camp, have taken steps indicating that they now recognize and accept the regime. These steps include the UAE's reopening of its embassy in Damascus on December 27, 2018, and Bahrain's doing likewise the following day[7]; the renewal of flights between Syria and UAE member country Sharjah[8]; the reopening of the Jordan-Syria border crossing at Nassib in October 2018[9]; then-Sudan president Omar Al-Bashir's Damascus visit in December 2018, which was the first Arab leader's visit to Syria since the crisis began in 2011[10]; Syria's participation in the Conference of the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union in March 2019[11]; 'Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi's Syria visit and meeting with Assad in July 2019, and the reopening of the border crossing between Al-Qaim in Iraq and Al-Bukamal in Syria, in September 2019.[12]

The efforts to normalize with the Syrian regime and the calls to reinstate it in the Arab League are to a large extent also the result of pressure from Russia, which argues that such a move will advance peace in the country.[13] On the other hand, the U.S. is working to stop rapprochement with Assad as long as he does not commit to a political process in his country. In light of this, U.S. Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey said on September 30: "We continue to urge the Arab League against any efforts to reintegrate the Assad regime into the organization before the criteria established in UNSCR 2254 are met. Any attempt to welcome the Assad regime back into the Arab League or reestablish relations would undercut our collective efforts to move toward a permanent, peaceful, and political solution to the Syrian conflict."[14]

The surprising sight of the Arab League secretary-general greeting and embracing the Syrian officials sparked speculation in the Arab media about whether it heralded Syria's reinstatement in the Arab League. Elements identified with the Syrian regime assessed that the encounter was not random and that with it Abu Al-Gheit had brought a positive message to the Syrian regime, of a shift in the official Arab stance regarding it and of a desire to reconcile with it. For example, Muhammad Nader Al-'Umri, a columnist with the pro-regime Syrian daily Al-Watan, assessed that Abu Al-Gheit was preparing the ground for a Saudi-Syrian or Arab-Syrian reconciliation, while 'Abd Al-Bari 'Atwan, editor of the pan-Arab online daily raialyoum.com, speculated that, in their brief meeting, Abu Al-Gheit probably apologized to the Syrian officials for the Arab stance towards Syria. 'Atwan added that Syria has no need to rejoin the Arab League in its present format.

Abu Al-Gheit himself tried to downplay the importance of the encounter. In an interview with the Al-Sharq Al-Awsat daily he said that Al-Mu'allem and he are old friends and that he maintains relations with all Arabs, whether he agrees with their views or not, especially in his capacity as Arab League secretary-general. He added that he anticipates Syria's return to the Arab League, but only after it complies with the Arab condition that it distance itself from Iran.

This report will review reactions to the encounter between Arab League secretary-general Ahmad Abu Al-Gheit and the Syrian delegation on the margins of the UNGA.

Arab League Secretary-General: The Syrian Foreign Minister Is An Old Friend; Conditions Are Not Yet Ripe For Syria's Return To The Arab League

In an interview published October 1, 2019, Arab League secretary-general Abu Al-Gheit said about his handshake with Minister Al-Mu'allem: "This was not a first greeting – last year I met him by chance and greeted him, and this year I went towards the elevator and he was standing there with his aides and I greeted him and he greeted me. He is an old friend – he was Syrian foreign minister when I was Egyptian foreign minister, he was his country's ambassador to Washington when I was Egypt's ambassador to the UN – He would always come to New York and we would meet. It is inappropriate for us to end the human aspect [of relationships] between people and [especially] between Arabs, particularly in light of the fact that I am secretary-general of the Arab League. I maintain relations with all the Arabs, whether I disagree with their views or not."

To the question of whether the Arab League's doors were now open to Syria, Abu Al-Gheit replied: "Not yet. For three years it has been proposed by several Arab elements that Syria should return, and that it was appropriate for it to take its seat again. This proposal comes particularly from Iraq and sometimes also from Lebanon, and the answer has always been that conditions are not yet ripe. This answer still holds in the Arab arena, even though [several] Arab countries have restored their relations with Syria and opened embassies there. The collective Arab will has not yet arrived at the moment when it announces that we have no problem with the regime in Syria and that, if [Syria] wants to return, we invite it to take up its seat... When matters stabilize, and the new Syria sets out on its path, I anticipate its return to its seat in the Arab League. There is a most important matter – that the new Syria will not fall into the arms of Iran. This is a central Arab condition that will allow Syria to return to the Arab League."[15] Abu Al-Gheit's assistant, Hossam Zaki, also responded to the incident, saying that the handshake was just a human gesture and did not indicate any change in Syria's status in the Arab League.[16]

Syrian Foreign Minister Al-Mu'allem spoke on the issue of Syria's return to the Arab League, telling the Hizbullah-affiliated Al-Mayadeen TV in an October 2, 2019 interview: "This concerns the member states and they are bound by the American decision." In further criticism of the League, he noted that "it is obvious that the league will come to Syria to become [truly] Arab."[17]

Syrian Columnist: The Handshake Indicates A Shift In The Arab Stance Towards Syria

Arab and Syrian writers who support the Assad regime presented the incident as indicating an Arab inclination to reconcile with this regime. Syrian journalist Muhammad Nader Al-'Umri, a columnist with the pro-regime Syrian daily Al-Watan, wrote: "Despite the claims of the Arab League assistant secretary-general, that [Abu Al-Gheit's] initiative was unplanned, that he conveyed no message to the Syrian delegation and that the incident was completely random, [the fact that] Ahmad Abu Al-Gheit interrupted the group of Syrian diplomats in the UN corridor to say 'good evening'... was not just a provocation or a naïve move, [and this] for several reasons: [First,] because, since the beginning of the war against Syria, the Arab League and most of its members have been very determined and have taken every precaution to ensure that no meeting or handshake take place, and that there be no call for Syrian participation in any regional or international forum, in an attempt to isolate Syria and delegitimize its representatives. [Second,] this handshake is reminiscent of the brief meeting between the Syrian Foreign Minister and his Bahraini counterpart that took place last year, in the same place and at the same forum, and which brought about the renewal of diplomatic relations [between the two countries] and the reopening of the Bahraini and UAE embassies in Damascus early this year. [Third], the Arab League secretary-general's provocative act took place shortly after Abu Al-Gheit met with the Saudi foreign minister, Ibrahim Al-Assaf, which suggests one of two possibilities: that Abu Al-Gheit is preparing the ground for a Saudi reconciliation with Syria, or [that he is preparing the ground for] an Arab reconciliation with Syria, with Saudi consent,... [a move] that he has begun [promoting] as head of the Arab League."[18]


Friendly encounter between the Syrian foreign minister and his Bahraini counterpart on the margins of the September 2018 UNGA (Source: Alahednews.com.lb, October 1, 2018)

Editor Of Online Daily Raialyoum.com: Syria Is Strong And Has No Need To Return To The Arab League In Its Present Format

'Abd Al-Bari 'Atwan, editor of the online daily Raialyoum.com, wrote on September 28 that Abu Al-Gheit's action was "a brave, notable and commendable move, whether you agree or disagree with him [on other matters], because it first of all reflected a sort of admission of guilt and a significant shift in the 'uncivilized' and 'unacceptable' stance towards the Syrian state, as a prelude to repentance and an attempt to mend bridges [with it]."

He added: "Mr. Abu Al-Gheit shook the hands of the powerful [people] whose Arab army defeated the conspiracy... He recognized this fact, directly and indirectly, and atoned for the [Arab] sins. He is weak and they are strong, and that is the most important and accurate description of the handshake, which was one of the most notable surprises of the current [UN] General Assembly [session]... We do not know what Mr. Abu Al-Gheit whispered in the ears of Al-Mu'allem and Al-Miqdad before he ended the short handshake and quickly walked away, but we may assume that he personally apologized to them and to their country, while emphasizing that he was only a functionary carrying out [orders] who could not stray from the agreed-upon [line], and that the return of Syria and its representative to the Arab League in Cairo was imminent. [He said this] based on a false assumption that the two [Syrian officials] were yearning to hear this 'good news'... [But] Syria has no need to return to the Arab League in its current format [and] after the sins [it committed], which are difficult to forgive, namely the legitimacy it lent to the conspiracies to interfere and sow destruction there [in Syria], as well as in Libya, Iraq and Yemen. On the contrary, the Arab League, and those who have stood at its helm in the last seven years, are the ones who need [Syria] to return, because they hope to be cleansed of those sins."[19]

*O. Peri is a research fellow at MEMRI; Y. Yehoshua is Vice President for Research and Director of MEMRI Israel.


[2] It should be noted that on September 30, 2018 a friendly encounter took place between Bahrain Foreign Minister Khaled bin Ahmad Aal Khalifa and his Syrian counterpart Al-Mu'allem; this too was on the margins of the UNGA, and received media coverage.

[3] Elaph.com, September 10, 2019; Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), January 7, 2019; Al-Hayat (Dubai), April 16, 2019; Raialyoum.com, December 19, 2018; Arabic.sputniknews.com, February 6, 2019. See also MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6841, In Advance Of Arab League Summit In Jordan, Calls In Arab Countries To Reinstate Syria's League Membership; Syrian Writers Reject Calls For Reinstatement, Saying Syria Will Return Only If Arab League Apologizes To It, March 23, 2017.

[4] Thenational.ae, June 7, 2018.

[5] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), October 2, 2019.

[6] Time.com, March 30, 2018.

[7] Mofaic.gov.ae, December 27, 2018; Mofa.gov.bh, December 28, 2018.

[8] SANA news agency (Syria), May 24, 2018.

[9] Al-Ghad (Jordan), October 15, 2018.

[10] SANA (Syria), December 16, 2018.

[11] SANA (Syria), March 3, 2019.

[12] Al-Watan (Syria), October 1, 2019.

[13] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 12, 2018 and January 30, 2019.

[14] Facebook.com/syria.usembassy, September 30, 2019.

[15] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 1, 2019.

[16] Aksalser.com, September 29, 2019.

[17] Almayadeen.net, October 2, 2019.

[18] Al-Watan (Syria), October 2, 2019.

[19] Raialyoum.com, September 28, 2019.