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.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shook hands with a beaming Assad as the summit got underway in Jeddah, turning the page on enmity towards a leader who drew on support from Shi’ite Iran and Russia to beat back his foes in Syria’s civil war.
The summit showcased redoubled Saudi Arabia efforts to exercise sway on the global stage, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in attendance and Crown Prince Mohammed restating Riyadh’s readiness to mediate in the war with Russia.
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.
With many Arab states hoping Assad will now take steps to distance Syria from Shi’ite Iran, Assad said the country’s “past, present, and future is Arabism”, but without mentioning Tehran — for decades a close Syrian ally.
In an apparent swipe at Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has backed Syrian rebels and sent Turkish forces into swathes of northern Syria, Assad noted the “danger of expansionist Ottoman thought”, describing it as influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood — an Islamist group seen as a foe by Damascus and many other Arab states.
Crown Prince Mohammed said he hoped Syria’s “return to the Arab League leads to the end of its crisis,” 12 years after Arab states suspended Syria as it descended into a civil war that has killed more than 350,000 people.
Saudi Arabia would “not allow our region to turn into a field of conflicts”, he said, saying the page had been turned on “painful years of struggle”.
Washington has objected to any steps towards normalization with Assad, saying there must first be progress towards a political solution to the conflict.
Addressing the summit, Zelenskyy, who wants to build support for Kyiv’s battle against Russia, asked the delegates to support Ukraine’s formula for peace and thanked Riyadh for its role in mediating a prisoner release last year.
In a letter to the summit, President Vladimir Putin said Russia attached “great importance to the development of friendly relations and constructive partnership” with regional states.
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.
Arab leaders attending included Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, who said in 2018 the region could not tolerate “a war criminal” like Assad. Qatar has reluctantly withdrawn its opposition to Riyadh’s move to readmit Syria.
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 fled their homes, and about 6.8 million remain displaced in their own country, where 90% of the population live below the poverty line. About 5.5 million Syrian refugees live in neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.