All eyes on Assad at Arab summit

This handout picture released by the Syrian Presidency Facebook page on May 18, 2023 shows Deputy Emir of Mecca Prince Badr bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz (right) receiving Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Jeddah on the eve of the Arab League Summit. (PHOTO / AFP)

HONG KONG – Expectations for finding a lasting solution to the Syrian crisis are high as Arab leaders, joined by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the first time in more than a decade, were holding Arab League's 32nd summit on Friday in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah.

This comes after Syria was reinstated to the Arab League on May 7. Syria's readmission to the bloc is a strong signal that Damascus' isolation of more than a decade is ending, Reuters commented.

A beaming Assad was received by Deputy Governor of Mecca region Prince Badr bin Sultan and Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit as he arrived on Thursday in Jeddah.

Assad was expected to address the summit later on Friday, along with other leaders.

READ MORE: Syria's Assad arrives to Saudi Arabia for Arab league summit

Oil powerhouse Saudi Arabia, once heavily influenced by the United States, has taken the diplomatic lead in the Arab world, reestablishing ties with Iran, welcoming Syria back to the fold, and mediating in the Sudan conflict.

The solution to restore stability in Syria must satisfy the Syrian people.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, Foreign Minister, Qatar

"The Americans are dismayed. We (Gulf states) are people living in this region, we're trying to solve our problems as much as we can with the tools available to us in our hands," said a Gulf source close to government circles.

On Friday, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shook hands with Assad at the meeting in Jeddah, after 12 years of Syria's suspension. The crown prince hugged Assad before their official picture was taken.

Experts said the meeting could indicate that peace is finally coming to Syria after 12 years of war, where thousands have been displaced with more than 300,000 civilian casualties between Mar 1, 2011, and Mar 31, 2021, the United Nations Human Rights Office estimated in its report in June last year.

The reintegration of Syria's president "could be the precursor of peace finally coming to Syria because as they say, if one way doesn't work, try the other door", Arhama Siddiqa, a Middle East analyst and research fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad in Pakistan, told China Daily.

"And because this comes at the backdrop of regional rapprochements where there have been unexpected developments, expectations are generally high," she said.

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (left) shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at a welcome ceremony prior to the 32nd Arab League Summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, May 19, 2023. (HANDOUT VIA XINHUA)

US opposes normalization

But the shift was opposed by the US.

Ahead of the summit, the US reiterated its opposition to normalization of relations with Damascus.

"We do not believe that Syria should be (afforded) reentry into the Arab League," US State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters in Washington, adding sanctions should not be lifted.

"As it relates to normalization, we don't support normalization with the Assad regime, and we don't support our partners doing so."

According to a Syrian Arab News Agency report, the summit attracts 15 leaders, presidents, kings and princes of Arab countries.

Mehmet Rakipoglu, a Gulf analyst and coordinator of academic studies at the think tank Dimensions for Strategic Studies, noted that despite not having full consensus among Arab nations amid its reinstatement into the league, Syria would seize this opportunity to legitimize the normalization.

Qatar reiterated its position on Wednesday that it will not join Arab consensus on Syria's readmission into the Arab League, Anadolu news agency reported.

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"The solution to restore stability in Syria must satisfy the Syrian people," Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani was quoted as saying at a news conference with his German counterpart Annalena Baerbock in the capital Doha.

He also said each Arab country has its own decision over ties with the Syrian government.

In recent months, Syria has been meeting with officials from several Arab countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates.

On Friday, Assad also met with Tunisian President Kais Saied on the sidelines of his participation in the Arab Summit.

During the meeting, Saied told Assad that "you are our brothers, and what hurts you hurts us".

With contribution from agencies via Xinhua