Every handshake would count, and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad had plenty of them at Friday’s Arab League Summit – along with hugs and kisses – from his onetime foes in the region.
As he strolled into the summit venue in the Saudi city of Jeddah on Friday afternoon, a beaming al-Assad extended his arms to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who grabbed them both and kissed Assad once on each cheek.
Al-Assad has been welcomed back into the Arab League after more than a decade of isolation. Friday was the first time he was invite to the summit since his country’s suspension from the blog following the eruption of war in Syria in 2011.
As leaders walked into the main hall, al-Assad exchanged greetings with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, among others.
During his speech, al-Assad said the summit was a “historic opportunity” to address crises across the region.
“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,” al-Assad told summit attendees.
Analysts said Syria’s readmission to the 22-member Arab League is a strong signal that al-Assad’s isolation is ending, reflecting an important shift in how regional actors view the reality of his government’s survival, in ways that are at odds with the West.
Syria’s Arab League membership was revoked after al-Assad ordered a crackdown on protesters in March 2011 that spiralled the country into a war, which has since killed nearly half a million people and displaced another 23 million.
In Syria’s Azaz, demonstrators chanted “the people want the fall of the regime” as hundreds came out on the streets in protest.
“Syria cannot be represented by Assad the criminal,” read a banner at the protest in the town, which is under the control of pro-Turkish groups. Anti-Assad protests took part in other rebel-held areas, including in the northern city of Afrin where a crowd held up a large flag opposition flag.
“We call on the Arab peoples to put pressure on their governments to go back on the decision [to re-admit Syria] and for Bashar al-Assad to leave,” said Issam Khatib, a lawyer originally from the northern city of Aleppo.