Syria pins hopes of rejoining Arab League on Oman

The visit by Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad to Muscat last weekend renewed hopes for Syria’s readmission.

Wednesday 24/03/2021
Minister of Foreign Affairs of Oman, Sayyid Badr bin Hamad bin Hamood Al Busaidi (R), meets with Syria’s Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad in the Omani capital Muscat, March 21, 2021. AFP
Minister of Foreign Affairs of Oman, Sayyid Badr bin Hamad bin Hamood Al Busaidi (R), meets with Syria’s Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad in the Omani capital Muscat, March 21, 2021. (AFP)

MUSCAT--Syria is pinning its hopes on the Sultanate of Oman for a return to the Arab fold with President Bashar Assad remaining at the country’s helm.

Syria’s membership of the Arab League was suspended in 2011 over its deadly crackdown on protesters at the start of the country’s civil war. Ten years on, there is still no consensus yet among member states that might allow the reinstatement of Syria’s membership.

However, a visit by Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad to Muscat last weekend renewed Damascus’ hopes for Syriam readmission.

Mekdad went on a three-day tour of the sultanate this weekend, meeting key government figures as Damascus seeks to normalise relations with Arab states.

In Muscat, Mekdad met  Sayyid Asaad bin Tarik al Said, deputy prime minister for international relations and cooperation affairs and one of Oman’s most senior royals.

 “Cordial conversations” 

“The two sides had cordial conversations and reviewed the bilateral relations between the Sultanate and the Syrian Arab Republic,” Oman’s official news agency reported.

“They also discussed aspects of the existing cooperation between them to serve the common interests of the two countries and their brotherly peoples.”

Mekdad also held talks with Minister of the Royal Court General Sultan bin Mohammed al-Numani to discuss ties between the two countries.

On the last day in Muscat, Mekdad met Oman’s Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr al-Busaidi after signing agreements on visa-free travel for diplomats and other special passport holders.

The cash-strapped Syrian regime has sought to normalise relations with Arab countries to strengthen its standing in the region and bring in much-needed investment.

A 2020 file picture of Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad. (AFP)
A 2020 file picture of Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad. (AFP)

Mekdad’s Muscat visit shows that the Syrian regime views Oman as a diplomatic pivot of particular interest for many Gulf and Arab countries.

Syrian diplomats believe that Syria’s relations with Gulf countries are currently untroubled, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, which has remained cautious, and Qatar, which apparently does not want to admit its losses after supporting a number of Syrian armed opposition groups.

Relations between Oman and Syria have remained cordial despite the regional hostility to Damascus.

Muscat joined other Gulf states in withdrawing its ambassador from Damascus in 2012 after the regime’s brutal crackdown on protests and opposition areas.

Unlike many other Arab countries, Oman continued to maintain diplomatic relations with Syria throughout the war and refused to support the opposition.

In 2020, Oman became the first Gulf state to reinstate its ambassador to Damascus in line with its foreign policy model of cooperation and neutrality.

 Past visits 

Late Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem visited Muscat during the war, while Oman’s former Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi also paid trips to Damascus, including meeting with Assad in 2015.

The UAE also recently rekindled official ties with the Syrian regime, reopening its own embassy in Damascus in 2018 and providing coronavirus aid.

Last week, the UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed called for Syria to be readmitted to the Arab League. This call was echoed by Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein and his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry.

In an interview with ONA, Mekdad praised the Sultanate’s “balanced, calm and responsible policy” and its efforts in working to restore stability in Syria.

He said in a press statement, “We are fighting terrorism and extremism, and we are working against unilateral coercive measures. Brothers in Oman have been standing by the Syrian people from the beginning of this war on terror until this moment.”

After a meeting with his Omani counterpart Sayyid Badr al-Busaidi, Mekdad said, “The suffering of Syrians does not serve any Arab side. It, however, increases the pain and problems of the region.”

“Terrorism cannot be confined to a specific place, but will rather extend to all parts of the region and its countries and even beyond the region itself,” Mekdad added.

 Bearing fruit 

Omani researcher in international affairs Salem bin Hamad al-Jhouri, expected that Omani efforts would bear fruit with readmission of Syria to the Arab League.

He told The Arab Weekly that the Syrian foreign minister discussed in Muscat “efforts to return his country to the Arab fold after the suspension of Syria’s membership nine years ago.”

He stressed that the Omani efforts, along with those of Algeria, Iraq, Egypt and the UAE have prepared the ground for Syria’s return to the Arab League fold.

Jhouri pointed out that there are arrangements that could allow Syria to participate in the upcoming Arab summit.

Syrian academic Aqeel Mahfouz expected Muscat to up its efforts and assume its usual role of bringing together the views of Damascus, Gulf states and other Arab countries, especially in view of recent regional and international dynamics that now favour achieving peace.

Mahfouz spoke of the Russian role in the region and Moscow’s effort towards preparing the ground for a Syria-Gulf rapprochement, especially following Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s tour, which included the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The Syrian academic told the state-run Russian internet platform Sputnik that “The reinstatement of Syria’s membership does not depend on Muscat’s role alone, but (also) on the efforts of major countries and Russia’s involvement.”

Observers, however, cautioned against exaggerating the effectiveness of Oman’s role as a mediator between Syria and the United States.

The observers argued that Oman’s mediation between Washington and Tehran to resolve the conflict in Yemen cannot be applied to the Syrian crisis.

Saudi Arabia is still reluctant when it comes to Syria’s readmission to the Arab League, while Qatar basically refuses to end the suspension of Syria’s membership and talks only about cooperating on on refugees.

Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Muhammad bin Abdulrahman Al Thani previously said the reasons for suspending Syria’s membership “are still valid,” while Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan urged the Syrian regime and the opposition to agree on a political solution.

The UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait, however, are almost unanimous on the need to return Syria to the League.

During his tour, the Syrian foreign minister visited Oman’s National Museum in Muscat.There, the Oman News Agency said, he saw a collection of 130 damaged Syrian archaeological pieces that are being restored by experts by the museum’s experts. Nine Syrian artifacts from Palmyra are also undergoing repair by specialists at Russia’s Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.