JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was given a warm welcome at an Arab summit on Friday, winning a hug from Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince at a meeting of leaders who had shunned him for years, in a policy shift opposed by the U.S. and other Western powers.
Assad, long ostracised by Arab states as he turned the tide of Syria's civil war with Russia's help, will be joined at the summit by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who wants to build support for Kyiv's battle against Russian invaders.
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. Syria's readmission to the Arab League is a strong signal that Assad's isolation of more than a decade is ending.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shook hands with Assad at the meeting in Jeddah, after 12 years of Syria's suspension. The crown prince hugged Assad before their official picture was taken ahead of the start of the meeting. 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 mediating in the Sudan conflict.
"The Americans are dismayed. We (Gulf states) are people living in this region, we're trying to solve our problems as much as we can with the tools available to us in our hands," said a Gulf source close to government circles. One highly sensitive issue is Assad's close ties to the Iranians, which makes Arab state uneasy. A Gulf analyst told Reuters that Syria risked becoming a subsidiary of Iran, and asked: "Do we want Syria to be less Arab and more Iranian, or ... to come back to the Arab fold?" Having welcomed back Assad, Arab states want him to rein in Syria's flourishing drugs trade in exchange for closer ties. Alongside the return of millions of refugees who fled Syria, the captagon trade has become a big worry for Arab leaders, on a par with their concern about the foothold established by Shi'ite Islamist Iran in the Arab country.
The war has shattered Syria's once productive economy, demolishing infrastructure, cities and factories and Assad would no doubt benefit from Gulf investment in his battered country. The Arab rapprochement with Assad gained momentum after China negotiated an agreement in March that saw Riyadh resume diplomatic ties with Iran, which with Russia has helped Assad defeat Sunni rebels and regain control of some major cities. A large swathe of Syria, however, remains under Turkish-backed rebels and radical Islamist groups as well as a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia. Finding a political solution to the 12-year-old conflict remains a big dilemma for Arab and Western countries. According to UNHCR since 2011, more than 14 million Syrians have been forced to flee their homes. Around 6.8 million Syrians remain internally displaced in their own country where 90 percent of the population live below the poverty line. More than 350,000 were killed. Approximately 5.5 million Syrian refugees live in the five countries neighbouring Syria- Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.
Assad is expected to address the summit later on Friday, in a striking diplomatic realignment. At an Arab summit hosted by Qatar a decade ago, the Syrian opposition sat in Syria's seat. In 2018 Qatar's emir said the region could not tolerate "a war criminal" like Assad. Ahead of the summit, the U.S. reiterated its opposition to normalisation of relations with Damascus.
"We do not believe that Syria should be (afforded) re-entry into the Arab League," U.S. State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel told reporters in Washington, adding sanctions should not be lifted. But Patel added that "we have a number of shared objectives" such as bringing home Austin Tice, a former U.S. marine and journalist who was kidnapped in Syria in 2012. A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers introduced a bill last week intended to bar U.S. recognition of Assad as Syria's president and enhance Washington's ability to impose sanctions. Then U.S. President Donald Trump branded an "animal" for using chemical weapons in 2018 - a weapon he consistently denied using. Assad rarely left Syria after the war began, going only to Iran and Russia until 2022, when he visited the United Arab Emirates - his first trip to an Arab country since 2011.
Swathes of Syria remain outside his control. Turkish forces are deployed across much of the northwest, which is still in rebel hands, while Kurdish-led groups control the east and northeast, including Syria's oilfields, with support from U.S. forces that are deployed there. Salem Al-Meslit, a prominent figure in the Syrian political opposition to Assad, wrote on Twitter that his attendance was a "free reward for a war criminal". Assad's return to the Arab fold is part of a wider trend in the Middle East where adversaries have been taking steps to mend ties strained by years of conflict and rivalry.