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During an extraordinary meeting on May 7 in Cairo, Egypt, the foreign ministers of the Arab countries resolved to permit the Syrian Arab Republic to return to the League of Arab States (LAS) after a 12-year suspension. They “decided to bring Syria in from the cold and back into the fold,” as American veteran of Middle Eastern affairs, Emile Hokayem, put it.

Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan proposed the summit, but Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), the Saudi Arabian crown prince and prime minister, who is currently riding high on the crest of a wave in the Arab political arena, was really the driving force behind the decision.

“Resuming the participation of the delegations of the Syrian Arab Republic in the meeting of the League of the Arab States and the affiliate organizations and entities as of 7 May 2023,”

reads Article 5 of the motion that the Arab states adopted. There were, however, no additional restrictions. All the misery suffered by the Syrian people—roughly 500,000 killed and another 13 million displaced—was shelved aside and seemed reduced to statistical data. The use of chemical weapons, horrific barrel bombs, violent city sieges, and the indiscriminate killing of populations were cynically not taken into account. 

Syria’s readmission to the LAS permitted Assad to attend Jeddah for the summit on May 19 and stroll the red carpet. He now seemed perky while shaking hands with high-profile Arab leaders. In contrast, he seemed like a hunted beast cowering in its dent in Damascus just months ago. One may not discover anything novel in his speech. He criticized Western hegemony and demanded that Syria’s Arab identity be preserved. The Syrian refugees, the spread of drugs throughout the Middle East, and the ongoing ceding of Syrian territory to Iranian paramilitary organizations and the Lebanese Hezbollah—the three aces up his sleeve—never materialized. Assad seemed to be there to take advantage of all the accessible low-hanging fruit, not to contribute to the solution.

The age-old query posed by Russian journalist and philosopher Nikolay Chernyshevsky in the 19th century now applies to the European Union in this regard: What Should Be Done? (Что дeлaть?) How the EU should treat this recent development with Syria? In accordance with UNSC resolution 2254, the EU has until now maintained its unwavering stance on the regime in Damascus. However, the recent high-level meeting of LAS brought a new factor into play: how to deal with the recently formed triangle between Cairo (LAS headquarter), Brussels, and Damascus? Will Syria’s re-admission to LAS have a bearing on the ties with the EU?

“The reinstatement of Syria does not mean normalization of relations between Arab countries and Syria,”

LAS Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit recently remarked. Each country shall determine its own course of action in this matter. Some Arab states, including Qatar, Morocco, and Kuwait, are hesitant to give credit to Syria at this time. They prefer Assad to demonstrate his true intentions, and the three benchmarks of refugees, drugs, and foreign militias will be standing the test of time for that purpose.

According to a spokesperson for the US State Department, Washington shares the objectives of its Arab allies in Syria, such as fostering security and stability, but remains  “skeptical of Assad’s willingness to take the necessary steps to resolve Syria’s crisis.” In reality, Bashar Assad has a track record of being a “Cry Wolf,” or as we say in Bulgarian, a “Lying Shepard,” a person whose statements should not be taken at face value. He has a history of lying and deceiving, so it’s reasonable to assume that this time won’t be any different.

According to Josep Borell, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Syria continues to be a top priority for the European Union. Since the EU and its Member States continue to be the largest source of international aid and provide humanitarian, stabilization, and resilience assistance inside of Syria and in neighboring countries, the EU will host the 7th Brussels Conference on Supporting the Future of Syria and the region. The participation of governments, international organizations, and Syrian civil society there is set for June 15.

Yet “What Should Be Done” in relation to the EU-LAS Ministerial planned for June 20? The meeting’s cancellation or postponement would convey an unambiguous political signal, although the meeting has been postponed twice so far at LAS’ request. Moreover, it is expected that a representative of the regime in Damascus will be seated at the table and exploit every photo opportunity to create the impression that Bashar Assad has normalized relations with the outside world, apart from the one with the Arabs. Some European states will not bear that. Will they push for postponement?

Furthermore, a number of Arab nations have revealed that they will not allow the normalization of diplomatic ties with Syria to influence their good relations with Europe. What message would the EU send to their respective capitals if the readmission of Syria reneges on relations between the EU and LAS? These Arab capitals are unlikely to be delighted, in the least, to see how this choice impacts Arab relations with the EU. And rightly so.

We already inhabit a postmodern era with a complicated global political landscape. The distinction between Syria: an Arab nation and part of the Arab world, on the one hand, and Bashar Assad’s regime, on the other hand, is quite necessary here. The fact of the matter is that the regime in Damascus is imitating and mutating now, but has not yet complied with UN Security Council resolutions, particularly resolution 2254 of 2015. Bashar’s appearance in Jeddah under the spotlight of meetings with the Arab leaders is not an indulgence of responsibility for the atrocities that were committed.  The obligation to carry out a peaceful political transition in Syria is still there. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s description to go “from regime change to regime embrace” does not apply to the EU. This is by no means a shunning of strategic relations with the Arab nations.

What can be expected moving forward? More problems than solutions are to appear, even if the regime in Damascus will use the recent Arab backing to subsidize its Machiavellian approach for cementing power. Bashar Assad has consistently prioritized regime survival over finding a generally supported political solution, which would entail his abdication of office at some point.

The best course of action for the EU in this new gambit is to fully support the strategic cooperation between the EU and LAS while stifling the Syrian regime’s attempts to imitate and crawl toward earning international legitimacy. It is expected that the EU would arrive at a few inevitable concessions in the wake of Syria’s recent reinstatement to LAS. Nonetheless, this is far preferable to any deterioration of relations between the EU and the Arab world.

In international politics, there are no maximalist solutions. The same goes for the recent LAS-Syria developments. Bashar Assad’s most recent mimic game is nothing more than a cunning contemporary maneuver that is praised by both Tehran and Moscow. Given the regime’s determination to survive, it is entirely normal. Nonetheless, there is no prospect that this may have a bearing on EU positions and perspectives.

¡No Pasarán! should be the short message to Damascus.

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