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Arab government representatives vote to return Syria to the Arab League

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This next story underlines a harsh reality. Syria's leader, Bashar al-Assad, has successfully endured more than a decade of civil war. Years ago, the Arab League kicked out his government. The Arab nations responded to a brutal crackdown on protests. In the years since, that crackdown became a war, featuring barrel bombs on civilian areas, chemical weapons attacks and torture. Yet when the Arab League meets later this month, President Assad is now welcome to attend. NPR's Ruth Sherlock has reported on the conflict in Syria since it began. She's on the line. Welcome.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Why would Arab leaders do this now?

SHERLOCK: Well, look, like you said, this is an authoritarian regime that has not changed its ways. But the fact is that a lot of countries in this region are recognizing that Assad has won the war and is likely here to stay. So this is a pragmatic decision. And also the war has caused so many real problems in this region. There's millions of refugees being hosted in nearby countries, including Jordan and Lebanon. And Syria has become a narcostate, trafficking drugs to surrounding countries. So many of these governments hope that by reengaging, they can address some of these issues.

INSKEEP: Does that mean that Syria is no longer a pariah?

SHERLOCK: Well, not quite - look, this is an important moment for the regime because it's a foot in the door in terms of rejoining the international community, Steve. Here's Lina Khatib. She's the director of the Middle East Institute at SOAS University in London.

LINA KHATIB: And this is what Assad is counting on, that eventually the international community is going to just give up on trying to push for political transition and just accept the reality on the ground and eventually do business with Assad again.

SHERLOCK: So we're not there yet. You know, despite the Arab League decision, even in the Middle East, some countries like Qatar are refusing to engage with Assad. And there's no sign that the U.S. or the EU will relax the sanctions that are stopping billions of dollars flowing to Syria. But this does feel like a kind of turning point.

INSKEEP: How does the United States respond to this Arab League decision?

SHERLOCK: Well, I think it realizes that it doesn't really have a choice to stop this from happening. So the messaging is that it wants to - these Arab - its allies in the region, to use the Arab League membership as leverage to force Syria to engage with U.N. peace talks that would involve a transition of power away from Assad. But the reality is the Arab League didn't set any preconditions for Syria's return, even though it does say it would like to discuss these issues. Salman Shaikh, the founder of the Shaikh Group, tries to mediate conflicts, mainly in the Middle East. And he told me he doesn't think that the Arab League can really influence Assad on this. He says the Assad regime has never shown goodwill towards a political settlement in Syria.

SALMAN SHAIKH: It's because they believe they can have their cake and eat it, that they can hold out from the international community and not make any serious efforts to discussing power sharing or some sort of new contours of a political agreement with the opposition and get away with it. And to be honest, they are.

SHERLOCK: And, you know, he's saying that at this point in the war, the U.S. has little influence over the conflict in Syria to force any significant change.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ruth Sherlock is covering the story from Beirut. Thanks so much.

SHERLOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.