In March 2013, with almost 100,000 dead in the then two-year Syrian revolution against President Bashar Assad, a Muslim cleric who headed the Syrian opposition was welcomed to take the country’s seat at the annual summit of Arab leaders.
“History will bear witness to who stood with the Syrian people in their ordeal, and who failed them,” said then-Qatari Prince Hamad bin Thani in his speech introducing Ahmad Moaz Khatib to the delegates.
On Friday, 13 years after his government’s Arab League membership was suspended, Assad returned to the Arab Summit on Friday, the strongest signal yet of his diplomatic rehabilitation within the Arab fold.
“We are pleased today with the presence of his excellency President Bashar Assad in this summit and the ratification of the Arab League’s decision to restart participation of Syrian government delegations in Arab League meetings,” said Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in his speech opening the summit in the Saudi Arabian port city of Jeddah.
“We hope that will contribute in supporting the stability in Syria and returning things to normal and restarting its natural role in the Arab world which will bring good to its people and support all of our aspirations to a better future for our region.”
The moment, in which a grim-faced Assad looked on, seemed a significant turnaround for a leader who spent more than a decade in political isolation, shunned by most Arab states — and many other governments around the world — for his scorched earth campaign to quell the 2011 protests against his rule.
The ensuing conflict — which grew into an outright civil war in which Assad’s forces bombed and besieged rebel-held areas and tortured or executed thousands of prisoners — left 580,000 people dead, 6.8 million internally displaced and 5.3 million others as refugees, according to U.N. figures. Russia and Iran joined the war on Assad’s side; the rebels received support — funding, training, arms and materiel — from Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the U.A.E. and a raft of Western nations, including the U.S.
Though the fighting has come to a stalemate with Assad remaining in power, he presides over a country largely in ruins, with regions that remain balkanized under competing administrations (one run by Turkish-supported rebels, another by Islamist jihadists, and a third by a Kurdish-led militia backed by the U.S.). Meanwhile, the government, which continues to be sanctioned by the U.S., European Union and United Nations, is desperate to fund reconstruction.
Assad struck a calmly defiant tone in his address on Friday, calling on the 22-member body to solve problems with each other internally instead of relying on outside help. He also proclaimed that the West was “devoid of principles and morals, friends and partners.”
“The most important thing is leaving internal affairs to their peoples, for they are able to manage their affairs, and all we have to do is prevent foreign interventions in their nations and only help when they ask,” he said, adding that Syria’s “past, present and future is Arabism.”
Despite the words of welcome to Assad, member states remain divided over how far they will normalize relations with Damascus. And there is still little clarity on what tangible benefits Assad’s return will bring.
Nevertheless, his attendance represented a victory for his government, if only for acknowledging that he remains in control.
“It’s a cliche to say, but this is symbolic. Seeing Bashar Assad sit there with other Arab leaders is important in and of itself,” said Aron Lund, a fellow at Century International and a Middle East analyst. “And it helps the government promote the idea it’s back in the region.”
Assad’s return to the Summit coincides with a larger push for regional rapprochement led by Saudi Arabia. In March, the kingdom restored ties with its longtime nemesis Iran under a Chinese-brokered agreement. It then opened talks a month later with the Houthis, the Iranian-backed rebel group with which has been at war since 2015. Meanwhile, it has also taken an active role in negotiations between warring parties in Sudan.
Riyadh’s outreach to Damascus quickened after the Feb. 6 earthquake that hit Turkey and portions of northern Syria, leaving more than 8,000 dead and tens of thousands homeless. Along with the U.A.E. (which had reestablished diplomatic relations back in 2018) it worked in the months ahead of the summit to overcome reluctance from Jordan, Kuwait, Egypt and Qatar to allow Syria’s reinstatement with no preconditions.
Though they eventually acquiesced, the concern among some of the attendees, said one regional diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity so as to comment freely, “is that Assad’s actions are being forgotten, or worse yet, rewarded, which sets an unsettling precedent for the region.”
“For the Saudis, his attendance is more about optics. They are trying to demonstrate their leadership credentials in resolving regional issues. But it remains unclear whether the positive signals they are sending will yield positive results.”
Several leaders speaking at the summit emphasized that Assad’s invitation did not mean the end of the conflict but signaled movement toward its resolution.
“Syria’s return to the Arab league is… the start of an Arab track to solve the Syrian crisis,” said Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi.
Both the U.S. and the E.U have condemned the overtures to Assad. Last week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced the “Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act of 2023,” which bars federal funds from being used to imply “any manner” of U.S. recognition of Assad and would expand sanctions against governments dealing with him.
“We urge the Biden administration to make clear its opposition to such efforts… and signal its willingness to impose consequences… on those that undermine accountability for the regime’s atrocities by restoring ties with Assad and his regime,” said U.S. Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho), chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a statement commenting on the Arab League’s reinstatement of Syria earlier this month.
In reopening relations, Arab nations — especially neighbors such as Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq — are also hoping for cooperation in dealing with the ongoing refugee crisis. Millions of Syrians who fled currently reside in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, bringing increasingly strident complaints that they represent an untenable burden on resources and infrastructure even as anti-migrant xenophobia spikes to new levels. Syria has also become an illicit drug producer, sending tons of the amphetamine Captagon to markets across the region. Jordan, which as a result is now both a destination and transit route for Syrian Captagon, has repeatedly asked Damascus to tighten border security.
“It’s a transactional situation, where Arab states say, ‘You’re going to get back into the Arab League, but if you want investments, economic aid and help lifting sanctions, then you’ll have to play ball on specific issues,’ ” said Lund.