Middle EastAnalysis

Syria faces obstacles to normalisation despite return to Arab League

Arab League members hosting refugees are eager for Syrians to return home

Syria was readmitted to the Arab League on Sunday. Arab foreign ministers ended the country’s 12-year suspension following the government’s crackdown on Arab Spring protests which erupted into full-scale warfare. Syria’s reinstatement cleared the way for President Bashar al-Assad to attend the May 19th Arab summit in Riyadh.

While Syria has been readmitted to the league, the 22 member states remain free to restore bilateral relations. Opponents of Syria’s return – Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Morocco – are unlikely to normalise ties soon.

Jordan has put forward a plan for Syria’s reinstatement which calls for the safe return of Syrian refugees, withdrawal from Syria of US and Turkish troops, reconciliation, provision of information on disappeared persons and an end to the billion-dollar trafficking in Captagon, an addictive stimulant popular in the Gulf.

While implementing Jordan’s plan, Arab governments could provide aid for the 90 per cent of Syrians who live below the poverty line at home and invest in reconstruction which has, so far, been blocked by the US and European Union sanctions.


Without shelter, water and electricity, Syrians at home cannot recover from war and sanctions and Syrian refugees could be unwilling to return. Families could be settled in hundreds of unfinished buildings on the outskirts of Aleppo and other Syrian cities once they are ready for occupancy.

Arab League members hosting refugees – Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq – are eager for Syrians to return home. With the most Syrians per capita, Lebanon insists that its 1.5 million refugees, including 820,000 who are receiving UN assistance, must repatriate soon. Refugees strain Lebanon’s broken economy and drain its limited resources while resentful Lebanese people struggle to survive high prices and 98 per cent currency devaluation.

Under popular pressure, Lebanon’s interior ministry has said Syrians should be registered by municipalities before they are allowed to rent property or conduct other transactions. This decree has created panic among many refugees who fear deportation once they are located.

As a large number of Syrian men fled with their families to avoid army service, the Syrian government could issue an amnesty allowing them to return without being conscripted. Some returnees have been sent straight to the army, discouraging repatriation.

The government has encouraged rural refugees to return and resume farming, but they also need to be provided with shelter, water, fuel, seed and fertiliser. Urban refugees are a problem as they could join masses of unemployed unless reconstruction begins and the economy revives, providing jobs.