Syrian President Assad attends Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia, a first since 2011

Trying to develop an effective and autonomous regional approach to deal with common issues, an increasing number of Arab countries have defied pressures exerted by the US and the EU against normalization of relations with Syria 

May 19, 2023 by Peoples Dispatch
Syria joins Arab League summit (1)
(Photo: SANA)

For the first time since 2011, Syria will be joining the Arab League summit to be held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Friday, May 19. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad arrived in Jeddah on Thursday to participate in the summit. The meeting of Arab leaders will focus on finding common ground on various regional issues, including the wars in Sudan and Yemen.  

Assad will join the Arab heads of states for the summit for the first time since Syria’s membership of the 22-member regional group was suspended in November 2011, within months of the war in the country. This is also Assad’s first visit to Saudi Arabia since the war started. Saudis had supported armed groups opposed to Assad’s rule after breaking formal diplomatic relations with his government. 

Despite Western objections to what they call ‘Arab normalization’ with Syria, Assad’s visit to Saudi Arabia and participation in the League summit has raised hopes for an end to the war in Syria and scope for greater integration and common understanding on issues affecting most of the countries in the region, including issues of Syrian refugees, increasing Israeli violence against Palestinians, drug trafficking, and the political crisis in Lebanon.    

Apart from participating in the summit, Assad is expected to hold bilateral meetings with several of his counterparts from the region. 

Syria received the invitation to join the summit from Saudi king Salman bin Abdulaziz, delivered by the Saudi ambassador to Jordan earlier this month. The invitation was extended by the Saudis days after the Arab League decided to end Syria’s suspension on May 7.  

Syria is one of the founding members of the Arab League, which was formed in 1945 for the purpose of greater regional cooperation. The summit in Jeddah is the 32nd annual summit of the group. 

Arab countries defy Western pressure

The US and some other Western countries, such as Germany, have been making serious threats against Syria’s re-induction in regional forums, alleging that the Assad government has been responsible for grave human rights violations during the war and needs to be held accountable before any normalization of relations.  

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock made a last-minute attempt and visited Riyadh on May 15 to convince the Saudis not to normalize relations with Syria.  

The League members, however, refused to budge under such pressure and invited Syria for the summit. The UAE has also invited Syria to join the upcoming COP28 meeting in Dubai in November, claiming that there cannot be any solution to the climate crisis without every country participating in the talks. If Syria attends, this will be the country’s first global summit since the beginning of the war in 2011. 

Meanwhile, in a surprise move, Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky has also landed in Jeddah to attend the League summit. It is expected that he will try to convince the Arab countries to discard their neutrality and stand with Ukraine against Russia. 

So far, despite the pressures exerted by the US and the European Union, most of the Arab countries have refused to take sides in the war in Ukraine or join in extending economic and political sanctions against Russia. 

Arab countries have instead been increasing their cooperation with Russia on various fronts in the last few years.