Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad plans to attend a gathering of Arab leaders on Friday for the first time since he violently suppressed an anti-government rebellion that turned into civil war, torturing his own people and using chemical substances. weapons used.
Syria’s membership in the Arab League, suspended since 2011, was restored this month ahead of the leaders’ summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Ayman Sousan, Syria’s assistant foreign minister, told Saudi newspaper Asharq Al Awsat on Wednesday that Mr. al-Assad planned to attend the meeting. Mr Sousan added that he hoped the summit would “mark a new phase”.
Welcoming Mr al-Assad is a major sea change for many Arab states, which cut ties with him as he laid siege to entire cities in a bid to defeat rebels after an Arab Spring uprising, oversaw a prison system riddled with torture and mass executions and sent millions of refugees to neighboring countries. The civil war that broke out has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and Syria remains embroiled in an economic and humanitarian crisis.
Saudi Arabia initially supported some of the rebel groups fighting against Mr al-Assad’s forces, supplying them with funding and weapons in secret coordination with the United States.
But as the years passed and Mr al-Assad held onto power, Arab governments gradually changed their approach. The United Arab Emirates restored ties with Syria in 2018, while Oman never severed them. Both countries have already hosted Mr al-Assad on official visits and have pushed for Syria’s return to the ‘Arab herd’. That effort didn’t get going until Saudi Arabia, the regional political heavyweight, got on board more recently.
The region’s challenges require the countries to stand together and “refuse external interference,” Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, said at a meeting of Arab foreign ministers ahead of Wednesday. at the top.
Now many Arab countries are openly dealing with Mr. al-Assad, arguing that shunning him has not achieved their objectives. Objectives vary from country to country, but for Saudi officials they include countering the influence of Iran – the kingdom’s regional rival and Mr al-Assad’s closest ally – and blocking captagon trade, an illegal amphetamine, across the borders of Syria and into the kingdom. For other countries, including Jordan, the most immediate concern is the fate of the Syrian refugees who remain in their country.
Friday’s summit will “provide Arab solutions to Arab problems,” said Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the secretary general of the Arab League. Speaking to Syrian state news media, Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad said after a preliminary meeting on Wednesday that the atmosphere was “comfortable” and that his country was happy to “cooperate with our Arab brothers”. Asked if Mr al-Assad would attend the summit, he said only that Syria “must not be missing from the competition”.
Hwaida Sad contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.