Lebanon’s foreign minister has called on the Arab League to restore Syria’s membership to the 22-member bloc, the latest indicator that Arab countries are preparing to welcome Damascus back into the fold after years of diplomatic isolation.
Speaking at the opening session of an Arab foreign ministers meeting in Beirut, Gebran Bassil said it was an “historic shame” to keep Syria out of a regional economic summit planned for Sunday, adding that Damascus should be back “in our arms”.
Syria was suspended from the Arab League in 2011 and slapped with sanctions and condemnations following its brutal repression of anti-government protests.
The protests escalated into a brutal war that has killed an estimated 500,000 people.
“Syria is the biggest absentee in our conference … Syria should be in our arms rather than throwing it in the arms of terrorism,” Bassil said.
“We should not wait to get permission for its return so that we don’t commit an historic shame by suspending a member because of external orders.”
His comments came shortly after Arab League chief Houssam Zaki told reporters that “Syria’s return is inevitable,” pointing out that Syria was never expelled, only suspended.
However, Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul-Gheit said that there was no clear Arab position regarding reinstating Syria’s membership.
“Until this moment, the condition is not ripe yet regarding the return of sisterly Syria to occupy its seat in the Arab League because there are different points of view,” he said.
Several heads of state pull out
Lebanon is preparing to host the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit (AESD) on Sunday but the event has been overshadowed by divisions over Syria’s participation.
Seven Arab heads of state said they would attend but only two are now expected, the leaders of Somalia and Mauritania.
The emirs of Qatar and Kuwait have said they will not attend, the Palestinian Authority president has said he will be in New York and Egypt is planning to send its prime minister rather than the president.
The AESD was formed in 2009 as an exclusively economic and development conference that tends to involve the private sector, including banks, chambers of commerce, industry and agriculture.
In recent months, several Arab states, including some that once backed armed groups against President Bashar al-Assad, have taken steps to reconcile with his government.
In mid-December, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir became the first Arab head of state to visit Syria since the war began.
Late last month, the United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy in Damascus while Bahrain said it was also seeking to restore its diplomatic mission in Syria.