Assad arrives in Saudi Arabia on first visit since war

Published May 19, 2023
Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad arrives in Jeddah to attend the Arab League summit, on Thursday.—Reuters
Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad arrives in Jeddah to attend the Arab League summit, on Thursday.—Reuters

JEDDAH: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad arrived in Saudi Arabia on Thursday, state media said, to join an Arab League summit for the first time in more than a decade of war.

The visit seals Assad’s dramatic return to the Arab fold, a development championed by host Saudi Arabia and fellow Gulf power the United Arab Emirates despite reservations from other Arab leaders.

Assad “arrived at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah to participate in... the Arab League summit” to be held on Friday (today), Syrian state television reported.

Saudi state-affiliated channel Al-Ekhbariya showed footage of a smiling Assad disembarking from a plane and being greeted on the tarmac by Prince Badr bin Sultan, deputy governor of Mecca region, where Jeddah is located.

The Arab League suspended Damascus in November 2011 over its bloody crackdown on protests, which triggered a conflict that has gone on to kill more than 500,000 people and displace millions more. Earlier this month, the 22-member pan-Arab body welcomed Damascus back and Saudi Arabia invited Assad to Jeddah, the latest in a series of high-profile diplomatic twists reshaping the region in recent months.

Syrian pro-government newspaper al-Watan said Assad would likely meet “a number of leaders in bilateral meetings.” The last Arab League summit Assad attended was in 2010 in Libya.

Syria’s front lines have mostly quietened, but large parts of the north remain outside government control, and no political solution to the conflict is in sight. Officials at several recent meetings have said Arab leadership is needed to find a settlement.

The fate of millions of Syrian refugees — many of them living in neighbouring Turkiye, Jordan and Lebanon — are among some states’ main concerns.

Several Arab countries are also seeking increased security cooperation with Syria, which critics say has turned into a narco-state with a $10 billion captagon industry, mostly trafficked to the Gulf.

Assad is hoping full normalisation of ties with wealthy Gulf monarchies and other Arab states will help finance reconstruction.

Following a preparatory meeting in Jeddah on Wednesday, Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said “reconstruction will facilitate (refugee) returns, and we welcome any Arab role in this field.” The United States has said it does “not believe that Syria merits readmission to the Arab League”.

Published in Dawn, May 19th, 2023

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