A letter from Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to Syrian President Bashar Assad affirmed “the depth of relations between the Palestinians and Syrians and the Palestinian leadership’s desire to strengthen its relations with Syria,” according to a member of a Palestinian delegation to Syria on Sunday.
The delegation from Ramallah – led by Secretary-General of the Fatah Central Committee Jibril Rajoub – was received by Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad.
Samir al-Rifai, Ramallah’s ambassador to Syria said Abbas could potentially also travel to Syria for a personal meeting with Assad.
Ramallah’s gesture comes on the heels of several Arab states’ decision to renew diplomatic relations a decade after Syria was suspended from the Arab League over its failure to end the bloodshed in the Syria civil war.
Relations between Ramallah and Damascus are complex. While Damascus has officially been a strong advocate of the PLO’s and Hamas’ terrorism against Israel, living conditions have been harsh for Palestinians in Syria who have for decades been denied Syrian citizenship and are treated as second-class citizens.
Approximately half a million Palestinian Arabs were reportedly living in Syria at the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011. However, by 2021, 100,000 or around 20% of the population have been forced to flee Syria. In addition, at least 4,000 Palestinians have been killed in the Syrian civil war, according to a report by the London-based Action Group for Palestinians of Syria (AGPS). In addition, relations between Syria and Hamas deteriorated after the Islamist terrorist organization refrained from clearly supporting Assad during the war in Syria.
At the center of the Arab effort to bring Syria back from the cold is the goal of limiting Iran’s malicious influence in Syria and in the wider world. Iran and its terrorist proxies, such as Hezbollah, have actively backed the Assad regime against anti-regime militias while simultaneously making Syria gradually subservient to Iran’s interests.
While the Assad regime is not popular in the Middle East, most Arab states have reluctantly concluded that the president will retain power for now and that the only way to limit Tehran’s influence is to ally with Damascus.
In late November 2021, an Arab League official in Cairo spoke to The National on the joint Arab efforts to reintegrating Syria in the Arab world.
“Nine Arab foreign ministers have informed us that they feel that Syria’s absence has hurt joint Arab endeavors and that Syria must be back sooner than later,” stated an Arab league official who also admitted that the decision to suspend Syria had been hasty and had only further undermined the already complex situation in Syria.
In November 2021, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan visited the Assad regime in Damascus in an effort to rehabilitate the bilateral ties between the two countries. While the UAE is a close U.S. ally and normalized ties with Israel in 2020, Washington was clearly displeased with the UAE foreign minister’s visit to Syria.
“This administration will not express any support for efforts to normalize or rehabilitate Bashar al-Assad, who is a brutal dictator,” stated U.S. State Department Spokesman Ned Price during a press conference.
However, as the U.S. prepares to finalize its exit from the Middle East, Washington’s words matter less and less in the Arab world. In addition to the UAE, Arab states such as Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Algeria, Oman and Tunisia have all signaled that they are interested in re-establishing diplomatic ties with Damascus despite opposition from Washington.
While the PA shares the Arab world’s desire to normalize ties with Syria, it has simultaneously expressed support of the Iranian regime, which is perceived as a champion of the Palestinian struggle against Israel.