According to his office, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is traveling to Saudi Arabia to participate in a regional summit. This marks his initial visit to the oil-rich country since the start of Syria’s conflict in 2011. The situation emphasizes the significant decline of Qatar’s influence as a diplomatic force in the Middle East. However, Riyadh’s decision to reintegrate Syria into the Arab community, reconcile with Iran, and establish peace in Yemen are all part of a broader initiative to enhance security and stability in the region.
Syria’s Assad Heads to Saudi Arabia for regional summit
Syrian President Bashar al Assad has headed to Saudi Arabia to attend a regional summit, his first visit to the oil-rich kingdom since Syria’s conflict began in 2011, his office said on Thursday.
Assad’s attendance at the Arab League summit, which starts on May 19th, is expected to seal Syria’s return to the Arab fold following a 12-year suspension and open a new chapter of relations after more than a decade of tensions.
Turkish TRT reports that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been pushing for peace in the region and over the past months, Riyadh has improved its relations with Iran, restored ties with Syria and is ending the kingdom’s yearslong war in Yemen. Iran, a main backer of the Syrian government in the country’s conflict, signed an agreement in China in March to resume relations with Saudi Arabia.
The renewed Saudi-Iran ties are expected to have positive effects on Middle East countries where the two support rival groups.
However, TRT adds, investments in war-torn Syria are unlikely as crippling Western sanctions against Assad’s government remain in place and could prevent oil-rich Arab countries from rushing to release reconstruction funds.
Saudi Arabia Banks on Arab League
Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit welcomed the Syrian delegation, led by Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad.
“I hope that Syria’s regaining of its seat at the league will allow for the ending of its crisis and allow its full and active participation in the Arab world,” Aboul Gheit said as he addressed the Syrian foreign ministers and Arab officials.
Speaking ahead of the summit, Aboul Gheit told The National during a working visit to Abu Dhabi that the meetings in Jeddah were taking place amid positive developments in the region.
“I imagine that it being held in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and with the vitality of Prince Mohammed bin Salman, that the summit’s presence and agenda, I expect, will be a very large one that will represent an addition to the Arab Summit,” Mr Aboul Gheit said.
The National says that the push by Riyadh to thaw ties is part of its policy and comes a month after it agreed to a deal to revive diplomatic relations with its regional rival Iran.
Riyadh’s willingness to bring Syria back into the Arab fold, heal the kingdom’s rift with Iran and achieve peace in Yemen are all part of efforts to increase regional security and stability.
A senior Saudi diplomat said last week that Sudan’s army chief Abdel Fattah Al Burhan, one of two generals at the heart of the conflict, had been invited to represent Sudan, but that it was unclear who would attend. No official confirmation of an invitation by the Saudi authorities was made clear by Wednesday.
Representatives of Gen Burhan and of his adversary, paramilitary leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, have been in Jeddah for more than a week for talks set up by Saudi Arabia and the U.S.
Analysis: Qatar takes diplomatic back seat as Saudi flexes political muscle
The Arab League’s welcoming back of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad into its ranks highlights how far behind Qatar has fallen in its bid to be a diplomatic voice that carries weight in the Middle East, Reuters reported.
Earlier this month Qatar reluctantly withdrew its opposition to Saudi Arabia’s initiative to readmit Syria. It clarified that it opposed normalizing its ties with Damascus but said it would not stand in the way of an Arab consensus.
The dismay in the diplomatic mission in Doha of a Syrian opposition group, which Qatar recognizes as Syria’s official embassy to the state, was a stark reminder of the shifting tides.
“Qatar did not accept this decision, but they did not stand in the way,” Belal Tourkya, the mission’s chargé d’affaires, told Reuters.
Analysts say the change in Doha’s position on Syria is a sign it may be dialling back on its once-ambitious regional foreign policy to avoid raising the ire of its most powerful neighbours.
Assad is expected to attend the Arab League summit in Jeddah on Friday for the first time in 12 years, a powerful signal his regional isolation over Syria’s civil war is ending.
Saudi Arabia used its leverage over Arab League members to push them to return Syria to the body, said Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics.
“Qatar didn’t want to play any obstructive role that would have risked angering the leadership in Riyadh and other Arab capitals,” he said.
Qatar has been steadily mending ties with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
But in recent weeks, Reuters added, Qatar has had little say in peace talks between Yemen’s Houthi movement and Saudi Arabia, or in seeking an end to fighting between rival military factions in Sudan.
The Gulf state is prioritizing a good working relationship with its neighbours, especially Saudi Arabia, said a Western diplomat in Doha who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“This makes them keen to avoid getting involved in regional confrontations and that is why they are less engaged in Yemen and Sudan than in former times,” the diplomat said.
Qatar says its foreign policy is “staunchly independent” and strives “to build consensus in the (Gulf) and wider Arab region through constructive dialogue that does not compromise our foreign policy,” a Qatari official told Reuters.
“For this reason, Qatar decided not to block Syria’s readmission to the Arab League but has not normalized relations with the Syrian regime,” the official said.
The misguided re-engagement with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad
The Financial Times has published an extensive analysis of Assad’s invitation to the Arab Summit.
When Saudi Arabia hosts an Arab League summit on Friday, a chair will be set aside for Bashar al-Assad, a despot who has tortured, imprisoned, bombed, gassed and besieged the people he is supposed to serve. If, as expected, the Syrian president attends it would be the first time he has been welcomed at the annual meeting of regional leaders since Syria was suspended from the league 12 years ago. It would be a sad day for Arab diplomacy and send a chilling message to victims of the regime’s atrocities: that Assad can continue with impunity.
The re-engagement with Assad picked up pace after a flurry of Saudi-led diplomacy, FT explained.
That came after China brokered a deal that led to the kingdom agreeing to restore diplomatic relations with its arch-rival Iran. Those pushing for re-engagement argue it is a realpolitik approach that recognizes Assad is going nowhere after regaining control of most of the country with Moscow’s and Tehran’s military backing — and that Arab states need to address problems that ripple across borders.
This includes the plight of refugees and the illicit trade in Captagon, an addictive amphetamine that is an economic lifeline for Damascus and a growing headache for countries such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia. But by readmitting Syria to the Arab League, Assad has been rewarded without first making concessions to ease the agony of Syrians.
This makes a mockery of what Arab states had previously suggested would be a step-by-step, carrot-and-stick approach to the Assad regime. The United Arab Emirates, which reopened its embassy in Damascus in 2018 and has lobbied for normalization, has gone even further, inviting Assad to this year’s COP28 climate change summit in Dubai. Yet there are no signs that Assad is about to change his thuggish behaviour. He has shown no contrition for his crimes.
Hopes of a political settlement with the weak opposition were dashed years ago. While the US and Europe pay limited attention to Syria, Russia, Iran and Turkey have for years been the main foreign actors in the country. The idea that the 6mn Syrian refugees abroad would rush home if Gulf states or others poured money in to rebuild cities devastated by Assad’s forces is fanciful. Many would fear for their lives. Tens of thousands of Syrians remain arbitrarily detained or “disappeared”.
FT added that the regime weaponizes humanitarian aid and any financial support would simply subsidize Assad’s efforts to cement his hold over the nation. Much of it would find its way to his henchmen.
The US and Europe must remain united in enforcing sanctions on the regime while using their leverage with Arab partners to curb the drift toward full normalization. Millions of Syrians are suffering horribly in the war-devastated country, it is economy in collapse. There are no simple solutions to easing their plight as long as Assad is in power. But freely rewarding the regime that is responsible for the catastrophe is not the answer.
For its part, the New York Times reported that the decision to welcome al-Assad reflects a significant shift among Arab states, many of whom had severed ties with him due to his brutal tactics, including the use of chemical weapons and torture during the civil war.
While Saudi Arabia initially supported rebel groups, the evolving regional challenges and the need for unity against external interference have prompted a change in approach. Arab countries now openly engage with al-Assad, focusing on countering Iran’s influence, preventing illicit drug trade, and addressing the situation of Syrian refugees.
According to the paper, the summit aims to provide Arab solutions to regional issues, with Syria expressing eagerness to work together with its Arab counterparts.
The Rehabilitation of Dictator Assad
In his opinion piece titled “Syria: The Rehabilitation of Dictator Assad,” independent journalist Gwynne Dyer addresses the issue of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, and the lack of justice surrounding his regime. The article, published on May 17, 2023, explores the growing acceptance and normalization of Assad’s rule, despite his atrocities during the Syrian civil war.
Dyer emphasizes the absence of justice as he highlights the efforts to rehabilitate Assad’s image on both the domestic and international fronts. He points out that many countries, including Russia and Iran, have supported and contributed to Assad’s survival, enabling him to consolidate his power. Moreover, Dyer discusses the return of foreign investment and the reopening of diplomatic ties with Assad’s government, reflecting a disturbing trend of rehabilitation and acceptance.
The article questions the international community’s commitment to justice and the consequences of allowing a dictator responsible for countless human rights violations to regain legitimacy. Dyer argues that overlooking Assad’s crimes may set a dangerous precedent, potentially encouraging other authoritarian leaders to believe they can escape accountability.
Overall, Dyer’s thought-provoking piece highlights the troubling reality of Assad’s rehabilitation and calls for a reevaluation of the international community’s approach to dealing with dictators and their crimes.
Iran and Russia Won Syria’s Civil War (and the U.S. Lost It)
Another opinion piece titled “Iran and Russia Won Syria’s Civil War (and the U.S. Lost It),” by Shay Khatiri, discusses the return of Syria to the Arab League summit and the implications of this development. Published on May 17, 2023, the article portrays this as a political triumph for Iran, which supported Bashar al-Assad’s regime during the Syrian Civil War, and a moral failure for U.S. foreign policy.
The author argues that Assad’s survival during the civil war can be attributed to his willingness to resort to extreme violence and the lack of intervention by the Obama administration. Additionally, Assad cultivated strong alliances with Iran and later Russia, which further bolstered his position. The article emphasizes that the Syrian Civil War, with its devastating consequences, including hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions displaced, the rise of the Islamic State, and damage to U.S. credibility, represents a significant strategic blunder and a moral catastrophe.
The United States chose to stay out of the conflict due to a growing inclination toward foreign restraint and concerns about jeopardizing nuclear arms control negotiations with Iran. However, Iran and Russia ultimately provided the military solution in Syria. The deployment of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the subsequent entry of the Russian military into Syria reshaped the regional dynamics. This allowed Iran to extend its military presence and influence near Israel’s borders and facilitated the return of Russian military power to the Middle East.
The article suggests that the failure to hold Assad accountable for his genocidal actions has resulted in his regime being welcomed back as a normal state in the Middle East. The author highlights the United States’ repeated promises to withdraw from the region, leaving Arab states vulnerable and seeking closer ties with Iran. The consequences include increased armament and tensions between regional powers, such as the Islamic Republic and Saudi Arabia.
The Syrian Civil War’s lasting impact includes the consolidation of order with permanent Iranian military bases near Israel and Hezbollah’s dominance in Lebanon, serving Iran’s interests against Israel. The article concludes by criticizing the inaction and moral stain of President Obama’s Syria policy, which ignored the genocide and handed a victory to Iran and Russia.
The Jerusalem Post: A Crossroads
The Jerusalem Post has also shared its two cents on this issue.
The paper argued that Syria’s participation in the upcoming Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia has attracted attention both regionally and globally. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is expected to attend the summit, marking Syria’s reintegration into the Arab League after more than a decade of civil war. However, Western countries like the US and Germany have expressed concerns about Syria’s return.
The Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia and several Gulf countries, along with Egypt, have been at the forefront of efforts to normalize relations with Syria, aiming to restore stability to the region. The Arab League states have been grappling with the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings, where Syria and Bahrain experienced protests. While some countries supported Syrian rebels, extremist groups like ISIS and local al-Qaeda factions gained prominence, causing alarm among regional players, JPOST added..
Iran and Russia intervened in the conflict, and the US also deployed forces to fight against ISIS alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Turkey’s incursion into Syria resulted in the occupation of territories and the displacement of Kurds. In an attempt to settle the Syrian conflict, Russia hosted talks involving Syria, Iran, and Turkey.
Apart from Syria’s reintegration, the Arab League summit also aims to address other crucial issues, including the ongoing civil war in Sudan. Arab delegates seek to reduce the conflict’s impact and explore opportunities for stability. Some view these developments as part of a shifting diplomatic landscape, with Iran and Saudi Arabia also reconciling. The reduction of US influence and the emergence of a multi-polar world order, where China plays a significant role, are seen as factors shaping the region.
Countries in the Gulf are exploring closer ties with China and Russia, potentially diminishing Western influence. The Arab League Secretary-General has praised Syria’s restoration of its seat while emphasizing the need to address the crisis in Sudan. The conflict in Sudan is deemed critical due to clashes between well-equipped armies in urban areas, resulting in casualties, damage, and population displacement.
Overall, the Arab League summit represents an opportunity for regional players to engage in discussions on Syria, Sudan, and the changing dynamics of the Middle East in a multi-polar world order.
This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. The Syrian Observer has not verified the content of this story. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.