Assad caps return to Arab fold at Saudi-hosted summit
Arab leaders welcomed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad back into the fold Friday at a summit in Saudi Arabia that was also expected to confront conflicts across the Middle East and beyond.
A triumphant Assad called for a “new phase” in regional cooperation in his remarks to the summit, which also featured a surprise appearance by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a sign of host Saudi Arabia’s growing diplomatic clout.
It was the first time Assad had appeared at the Arab League since Syria was suspended in 2011 over the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators that led to civil war.
“I hope that it marks the beginning of a new phase of Arab action for solidarity among us, for peace in our region, development and prosperity instead of war and destruction,” Assad told the gathering in the Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah.
As leaders walked into the main hall, Assad exchanged greetings with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and before the opening ceremony he met Tunisia’s president and the vice president of the United Arab Emirates.
“I would like to loudly welcome Syria back to its seat among its brothers,” Algerian Prime Minister Ayman Benabderrahmane said in the opening speech of the summit.
“We are pleased today by the attendance of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in this summit,” Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, said in his remarks, adding he hoped the return would lead to “stability” in Syria.
Assad and Prince Mohammed met after the summit, and Assad “praised the efforts exerted by Saudi Arabia to achieve Arab rapprochement”, Syria’s official SANA news agency reported.
King Salman, Prince Mohammed’s 87-year-old father, did not make an appearance during the summit, leaving his son to preside over the event.
– ‘Promote reconciliation’ –
The embrace of Assad was a marked departure for Saudi Arabia, which supported Syrian rebel groups during earlier stages of the war and accused Assad, a staunch Iran ally, of operating a “killing machine”.
From Riyadh’s perspective, a successful summit would involve concrete commitments from Syria on issues including war refugees and the captagon trade, said Torbjorn Soltvedt of the risk intelligence firm Verisk Maplecroft.
An Arab League statement seen by AFP said the bloc agreed to address both issues as well as “terrorism”.
It stressed the “need to take practical and effective steps to gradually solve the crisis” in Syria, but details on what actions might be taken were not immediately available.
Back home in Syria, hundreds in the rebel-held north protested against Assad’s rehabilitation with chants of “the people want the fall of the regime”, the rallying cry of the protests that swept Syria and other Arab countries in 2011.
Assad’s return follows a frenetic stretch of high-stakes diplomacy triggered by the kingdom’s surprise Chinese-brokered rapprochement deal with Iran announced in March.
Since then, Saudi Arabia has restored bilateral ties with Syria and ramped up a push for peace in Yemen, where it leads a military coalition against the Iran-backed Huthi rebels.
Not every country in the region has been eager to mend ties with Assad.
Qatar said this month it would not normalise relations with Assad’s government but noted this would not be “an obstacle” to Arab League reintegration.
Syrian state media reported on Friday that Assad chatted and shook hands with Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani before entering the summit hall.