JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Saudi Arabia hosted an Arab League summit on Friday in which Syrian President Bashar Assad was welcomed back after a 12-year suspension and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a surprise visit to rally support against Russia.
Russian airstrikes have left a swath of destruction across both countries, but in Syria they came at Assad’s invitation and helped him cling to power through years of grinding civil war. Several other Arab states have maintained warm ties with Moscow while remaining largely neutral on the Ukraine war.
The odd pairing of the two leaders in the same forum is the result of a recent flurry of diplomacy by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is pursuing regional rapprochement with the same vigor he previously brought to the oil-rich kingdom’s confrontation with its archrival Iran.
In recent months, Saudi Arabia has restored diplomatic ties with Iran, is ending the kingdom’s yearslong war against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen and led the push for Syria’s return to the 22-member Arab League.
The Saudi crown prince welcomed both Assad and Zelensky to the Red Sea city of Jeddah, expressing support for “whatever helps in reducing the crisis between Russia and Ukraine.” He added that the kingdom, which brokered a prisoner exchange last year, “is ready to exert efforts for mediation.”
Addressing the summit in English, Zelensky appeared to invoke the Arab world’s own troubled history of invasion and occupation, saying their nations would understand that Ukraine “will never submit to any foreigners or colonizers. That’s why we fight.”
He took a swipe at Iran for supplying attack drones to Russia and spoke about the suffering of Muslim ethnic Tatars living under Russian occupation in Crimea. He also accused some in the hall of “turning a blind eye” to Russia’s violations, without naming them.
The visit comes amid a whirlwind of international travel by the Ukrainian leader, but until now he has mostly visited allied countries.
Saudi Arabia pledged $400 million in aid to Ukraine earlier this year and has voted in favor of UN resolutions calling on Russia to end its invasion and opposing the annexation Ukrainian territory. But it has resisted US pressure to increase oil production in order to squeeze Russia’s revenues.
Assad, who remains a close ally of both Russia and Iran, said he hoped the summit would mark the start of a “new stage of Arab solidarity to achieve peace, development, and flourishing in our region instead of war and destruction.” He added that Arab countries should reject ”external interference” in their affairs.
In recent years, Assad’s forces have recaptured much of Syria’s territory from insurgents with crucial help from Russia — which intervened militarily on his behalf beginning in 2015 — and Iran. Saudi Arabia had been a leading sponsor of the opposition at the height of the war but pulled back as the insurgents were eventually cornered in a small pocket of northwestern Syria.
“Saudi Arabia’s push to bring Syria back into the fold is part of a broader shift in the kingdom’s approach to regional politics,” says Torbjorn Soltvedt, a leading Mideast analyst at the risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft.
“The previously adventurist foreign policy defined by the Yemen intervention and efforts to confront Iran are now being abandoned in favor of a more cautious approach,” he said.
Assad’s first official meeting on Friday was with his Tunisian counterpart, Kais Saied, who is waging his own crackdown on dissent in the birthplace of the Arab Spring protests that swept he region in 2011.
“We stand together against the movement of darkness,” Assad said, apparently referring to extremist groups that came to dominate the Syrian opposition as his country’s civil war ground on, and which drew a large number of recruits from Tunisia.
The Saudi crown prince later welcomed each leader to the summit, including a smiling Assad wearing a dark blue suit. The two shook hands and kissed cheeks before the Syrian leader walked into the hall.
There are some Arab holdouts to Damascus’ rehabilitation, including gas-rich Qatar, which still supports Syria’s opposition and says it won’t normalize bilateral relations without a political solution to the conflict.
Western countries, which still view Assad as a pariah over his forces’ aerial bombardment and gas attacks against civilians during the 12-year civil war, have criticized his return to the Arab fold and vowed to maintain crippling sanctions that have hampered reconstruction.
Years of heavy fighting involving Assad’s forces, the opposition and jihadi groups like the Islamic State group left entire villages and neighborhoods in ruins. The conflict killed nearly a half million people and displaced half of the country’s pre-war population of 23 million.
American lawmakers advanced bipartisan legislation this week that would bar any US federal agency from recognizing or carrying out normal relations with Syria’s government as long as it’s led by Assad, who came to power in 2000, following the death of his father.
The legislation would also plug holes in existing US sanctions targeting Assad and mandate Washington create a formal strategy to counter efforts by countries that do normalize relations with his government.
The White House National Security Council said in a statement Friday that the administration opposes the legislation. It fears the additional measures “would make it unduly difficult to provide humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people – who are suffering because of the actions of the Assad regime.”
The administration remains committed to a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted in 2015 that endorsed a roadmap to peace drafted three years earlier. But several rounds of talks held over the years between Assad’s government and the opposition went nowhere, and he has had little incentive to compromise with the beleaguered insurgents since Russia entered the war on his side eight years ago.
Arab leaders appear to be focused on more modest goals, like enlisting Assad’s help in countering militant groups and drug traffickers, and bringing about the return of Syrian refugees.