Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has made his first appearance at an Arab League summit since Syria was suspended from the organization 12 years ago. Many leaders had shunned Assad following his government’s violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests, which ultimately sparked a devastating civil war claiming the lives of half a million people.
Syria’s readmission to the Arab League was recently approved, with states previously supporting the opposition recognizing Assad’s firm grip on power. Notably, even summit hosts Saudi Arabia, once critical of Assad, played a part in this rapprochement. The decision gained momentum after a destructive earthquake struck Turkey and northwestern Syria, prompting former adversaries to provide humanitarian aid to government-controlled areas.
Further thawing of relations occurred through an unexpected agreement brokered by China in March. This deal saw Saudi Arabia restore diplomatic ties with regional rival Iran, which, along with Russia, has assisted Assad’s forces in reclaiming control over major cities in Syria. However, significant portions of the country remain under the control of Turkish-backed rebels, jihadists, and Kurdish-led militia supported by the United States.
The Syrian civil war has displaced half of the country’s pre-war population of 22 million, with 6.8 million people internally displaced and 6 million more as refugees or asylum-seekers abroad. Even before the recent earthquake, an estimated 15.3 million Syrians were in dire need of humanitarian assistance, representing a record high since the conflict began.
President Assad arrived in Jeddah, the Red Sea port city, on Thursday night, where the Arab League summit is currently being held. During a meeting of foreign ministers from the 22 member states, Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit expressed hope that Syria’s readmission would pave the way for the end of the conflict.
While Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister welcomed Syria’s return and called for strengthened joint Arab action, not all countries shared the same enthusiasm. Qatar’s foreign minister stated that they had dropped their opposition to Syria’s reinstatement to align with the Arab consensus. In contrast, the United States maintained its position, expressing that Syria did not merit readmission and emphasizing their refusal to normalize relations with the Assad regime.
As the Arab League summit unfolds, President Assad’s presence continues to generate mixed reactions and raises questions about the future of Syria and its role within the region.