Assad gets warm reception as Syria welcomed back into Arab League

Syrian president attends first regional bloc summit since his country’s suspension over crackdown on anti-government protests in 2011.

Arab League summit
Leaders pose for a family photo ahead of the Arab League summit, during which they welcomed back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, May 19, 2023 [Handout via Reuters]

After more than a decade of isolation, Bashar al-Assad, the president of war-torn Syria, has been welcomed back into the Arab League.

Al-Assad on Friday attended the regional bloc’s 32nd summit in Saudi Arabia’s port city of Jeddah for the first time since his country’s suspension following the eruption of war in Syria in 2011.

During his speech, he said the summit was a “historic opportunity” to address crises across the region as hundreds protested in rebel-held northern Syria against his participation in the event.

“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 attendees.

Al-Assad said Syria would always belong to the Arab world but called for non-interference in the internal affairs of Arab states.

“It is important to leave internal affairs to the country’s people as they are best able to manage their own affairs,” he said.

And in an apparent swipe at Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has backed Syrian rebels and sent Turkish forces into swaths of northern Syria, al-Assad noted the “danger of expansionist Ottoman thought”, describing it as influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood – a group seen as a foe by Damascus and many other Arab states.

In Azaz, in opposition-held northwestern Syria, 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. 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.

protests in syria
A demonstrator holds a sign reading ‘Normalising with the regime, is a betrayal of God, his prophet and Muslims’ during a protest against Arab normalisation with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and the Arab League’s reintegration of Syria, in the rebel-held city of Azaz [Khalil Ashawi/Reuters]

‘End of an era’

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.

Ibrahim Fraihat from the Doha Institute said al-Assad’s mention of the “Arab identity” was significant.

“He emphasisied … the Arab identity of Syria, and linking that to the broader Arab region, which is emphasising that Syria and al-Assad regime here are part of the larger group and the entire region,” Fraihat told Al Jazeera.

The return and welcoming of the “Syrian regime” has also been an overarching theme in the summit, Fraihat said.

“Everyone is repeating … the same message, which reflects a wide acceptance amongst most Arab leaders for the return of the Assad regime,” he said.

Al Jazeera’s Hashem Ahelbarra, who has reported on Syria extensively, said al-Assad’s speech was a “defining moment”.

“It’s the end of an era and the beginning of a new one,” Ahelbarra said, adding that while many Arab countries sided with Syrian opposition, provided significant military and political assistance to the opposition, now, it’s the “reverse”.

Arab nations are “rehabilitating” al-Assad, Ahelbarra said.

The host country was formerly a key backer of armed opposition groups that sought to overthrow Al-Assad during Syria’s war.

Earlier in Jeddah, as leaders walked into the summit’s main hall, al-Assad exchanged greetings with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, among others.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who is the de facto ruler of the kingdom, hugged al-Assad before their official picture was taken ahead of the start of the meeting.

MBS said he hoped Syria’s “return to the Arab League leads to the end of its crisis”.

Gulf leaders attending the summit was Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Sheikh Tamim left Jeddah after leading his country’s delegation, according to a statement by Qatar’s Emiri Diwan distributed to media as al-Assad was speaking, and did not make his own address.

“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.

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.

Some Arab states have pushed to end al-Assad’s isolation and welcomed the decision, while others have opposed full normalisation without a political solution to the Syrian conflict and want there to be conditions for Syria’s return.

Oil powerhouse Saudi Arabia, once heavily influenced by the United States, has taken the diplomatic lead in the Arab world in the past year, re-establishing ties with Iran, welcoming Syria back to the fold, and meditating in the Sudan conflict.

The potential re-establishment of ties between Riyadh and Damascus would mark the most significant development yet in moves by Arab states to normalise ties with al-Assad.

Global challenges

The summit was also attended in person by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who wants to build support for Kyiv’s battle against Russia.

Zelenskyy’s surprise visit is his first to the Middle East since Russia’s invasion in February 2022, giving the Ukrainian leader an opportunity to address leaders of a region who have been far less united in their support of Kyiv than staunch Western allies.

An Arab League official told the AFP news agency that Zelenskyy’s invitation came from Saudi Arabia, not the bloc. There was no immediate comment by Saudi Arabia.

A representative of the Russian embassy will also attend the summit, according to a Saudi official.

Zelenskyy accused some Arab leaders of ignoring the horrors of Russia’s war on his country.

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

Gulf states have tried to remain neutral in the Ukraine conflict despite Western pressure on Gulf oil producers to help isolate Russia, a fellow OPEC+ member.

While pledging hundreds of millions of dollars of 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.

Earlier this year, a Saudi official told journalists that Riyadh remained open to contributing to mediation to end the conflict, especially “on important minor issues that may help cumulatively in the end to have a political solution of the whole issue”.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and Saudi Prince Badr Bin Sultan
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, is greeted by Prince Badr bin Sultan, deputy governor of Mecca, upon his arrival at Jeddah airport, Saudi Arabia, Friday, May 19, 2023, to attend the Arab summit [Saudi Press Agency via AP]
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies