‘A new phase of solidarity’: Assad caps return to Arab fold at Saudi-hosted summit

Zelensky appearance demonstrates host Riyadh’s growing diplomatic clout, as it seeks concrete commitments from Syria on issues including war refugees

In this photo provided by the Saudi Press Agency, SPA, leaders of Arab countries pose for a group picture ahead of the Arab summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Friday, May 19, 2023. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)
In this photo provided by the Saudi Press Agency, SPA, leaders of Arab countries pose for a group picture ahead of the Arab summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Friday, May 19, 2023. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AFP) — Arab leaders welcomed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad back into the fold Friday at a summit in Saudi Arabia that also grappled with 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, 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, an 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.

Saudi Arabia is also trying to hammer out a truce in Sudan, hosting representatives of that country’s two warring generals.

Asked about those talks on Friday, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said the focus was “on reaching a truce that allows Sudanese civilians to take a breather.”

Not every country in the region has been eager to mend ties with Assad.

Qatar said this month it would not normalize 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.

The United States has criticized Syria’s return to the Arab League, but the bloc’s secretary-general, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, dismissed those concerns at a press conference on Friday.

“I think we must work in isolation from the vision of outside powers for this particular step,” he said.

‘Blind eye’ to Ukraine

Zelensky’s visit was his first to the Middle East since Moscow’s invasion in February 2022, giving the Ukrainian leader an opportunity to address regional leaders who have been far less united in their support of Kyiv than staunch Western allies.

Dressed in his trademark fatigues, Zelensky was greeted at the airport by Ukraine’s ambassador and Saudi officials.

Zelensky later accused some Arab leaders of ignoring the horrors of Russia’s invasion.

“Unfortunately, there are some in the world and here, among you, who turn a blind eye to those cages and illegal annexations,” Zelensky told Arab heads of state, urging them to “take an honest look” at the war.

An Arab League official told AFP Zelenky’s invitation came from Saudi Arabia, not the bloc. Saudi officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A representative of the Russian embassy was also expected to attend the summit.

Zelensky also held talks with the Saudi crown prince, whose government has positioned itself as relatively neutral on the war in Ukraine.

While pledging hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Ukraine and backing UN Security Council resolutions denouncing Russia’s invasion, it has also coordinated closely with Russia on energy policy, earning a rebuke from Washington last year.

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