Over the past year, fluid developments have reshaped West Asia. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad addressed an Arab League Summit on Friday in Saudi Arabia, 12 years after Syria was suspended from the organization.
On Thursday, President al-Assad, accompanied by a high-ranking delegation, arrived in the Saudi port city of Jeddah (where the 32nd summit was held on Friday), upon an official invitation by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman.
Al-Assad was received by the deputy governor of Mecca region and Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit. The Syrian president was then escorted to the reception hall of the Royal terminal where the trio held brief talks.
Arab leaders and heads of delegations participating in the summit took part in a group photo before the start of Friday’s opening session, with President al-Assad in the front row. It was an event that would have been unheard of just a year ago.
Opening the summit, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said, “we are pleased with the presence of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the Arab summit.”
Bin Salman also expressed hope that Syria’s return to the Arab League would contribute to achieving stability in the Arab world and resolving the challenges the region is facing.
For his turn, President al-Assad said the Arab world is facing a “historic moment” while hoping the summit would help bring an end to regional crises without foreign intervention.
He underlined the importance of joint-Arab action to face the occupying Israeli regime.
The Syrian leader pointed out that “there are many pressing matters at hands?, which are not enough for summits. They do start with the crimes of the Zionist entity that is rejected by the Arabs against the resistant Palestinian people.” Noting that “this is where the vital role of the Arab League comes to play in discussing these issues and addressing them, provided that the implementation system [of the summit] is developed.”
Upon arrival to the summit hall, al-Assad shook hands and held a conversation with the Qatari Emir. Doha has yet to normalize ties with Damascus.
Al-Assad has also used the trip to hold bilateral meetings with heads of neighboring states with the aim of strengthening ties in the face of the harsh U.S. sanctions.
Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad had earlier confirmed the presence of al-Assad at the Jeddah summit, expressing “Syria’s satisfaction with the atmosphere of the meetings that preceded it.”
Al-Miqdad saod, “we look forward to the Arab role being effective in helping the Syrian refugees return to their country, and there is no doubt that the reconstruction process will facilitate the return of these refugees.”
Since Syrian government forces managed to recapture almost all regions from foreign-backed militants and in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake earlier this year, there has been a flurry of talks and trips between al-Miqdad and his Arab counterparts to pave the way back for return of Damascus to the Arab League.
But it is difficult for the government to facilitate the return of countless nationals to their homes who have either been displaced internally or forced to leave the country. The war came at a high price. Syria’s infrastructure has been destroyed. Vital services need to be restored all across the country. This is coupled with the occupation of some parts of the Syrian soil by foreign forces.
In 2011, the Arab League suspended Damascus. The suspension came in the aftermath of foreign-backed militancy and terrorists who infiltrated the country and went on to occupy large parts of its territory.
Syria’s 12-year suspension was lifted earlier this month after a vote by Arab government delegates in Egypt. The decision was supported at the Cairo session.
Exactly who took the decision to suspend Syria (one of a handful of countries that founded the Arab League) in the first place is up for debate.
Experts argue that pressure from the United States and other Western powers led to Syria’s removal in a bid to diminish support for the Palestinians, which Damascus has been a staunch supporter of.
Some members of the Arab League had reservations over the suspension, arguing the move went against the bloc’s own rules and regulations.
In the time frame between Syria’s suspension and its return today, there have been so-called normalization deals between a few Arab governments and Israel.
On the other hand, before the outbreak of the war on Syria, Damascus had been a staunch supporter of the Palestinian resistance. It remains a key player in supporting the Palestinians, but during its focus on fighting foreign-backed militants and terrorism at home, the backing for the oppressed Palestinians was not as strong as it could have been.
The warming of ties between Syria and its Arab neighbors has been met with strong public opposition from Washington. It’s a major blow for the U.S. who called on Saudi Arabia to prevent al-Assad from attending the Jeddah summit.
Despite some differences that remain between Saudi Arabia and Syria, Riyadh has indicated its willingness to distance itself from the U.S. and form a more independent foreign policy.
The Saudis have defied fierce U.S. objections on the resumption of diplomatic ties with Iran, Syria, engage more with China and coordinate with Russia on oil production.
The UAE has taken a step further by inviting al-Assad to the COP28 climate summit it is hosting later this year. This would be the first international summit the Syrian president could potentially attend, following a decade of war on his country.
There is now hope that the Arab League, instead of some members fighting against each other, will refocus on the key issue at hand which is the instability that Israel spreads across West Asia and real support for the oppressed Palestinians.
Some have returned on the right path, and the brutal Israeli crackdown on Palestinians was the highlight of a joint Arab stance in the November 2022 summit in Algeria.
Others have realized that the war on Syria was based on the pretext that targeting the country was aimed at wiping out Palestine from the policies of Arab nations, as well as the unity of the Arab and Islamic world.
Algeria alluded to this at the last Arab League summit before handing over the rotating presidency of the bloc to Saudi Arabia.
Iraq, alongside Algeria, Lebanon and other Arab states who refrained from cutting off ties with the Syrian government understood that the Western-Israeli policy of undermining the security of Syria and its people also risked damage to the entire Arab security apparatus, and to their own security as well.
Today, the situation in Syria has been nearly stabilized, as government forces backed by Iran and Russia have dealt a heavy blow to the terrorist groups, and Damascus will regain its ability to control its security and the security of all its borders.
The meeting of the Arab foreign ministers on Wednesday in preparation for the Jeddah summit witnessed a welcome to Syria’s return to the Arab League and the steps that were taken to strengthen relations.
In a meeting with his Saudi counterpart, al-Miqdad pointed out, “There are directives from the leaderships of the two countries that bilateral relations be at the level that the people of Syria and Saudi Arabia deserve.”
He added, “We have the decision from the highest leaderships in Syria and Saudi Arabia to move towards progress and there is no turning back.”
Now Arab policies are returning to strategic rationality.
By Ali Karbalaei