Syrian President Bashar al-Assad participated in his first Arab League summit in more than a decade on Friday, marking his return to the Arab diplomatic scene from which he had been excluded after the war in Syria.
After years of isolation, he pleaded for “a new phase” in Arab cooperation in front of his peers gathered in Saudi Arabia, and in the presence of Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky, a surprise guest at the meeting, who accused some countries in the region to “turn a blind eye” to the Russian invasion.
“We are happy to welcome President Bashar al-Assad,” Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said at the opening of the summit.
The pan-Arab organization had expelled the Syrian regime at the end of 2011 for its repression of a popular uprising, which degenerated into a devastating war, before reinstating it on May 7.
The Syrian president affirmed that his country is committed to “its Arab belonging”, pleading for “joint Arab action in favor of solidarity, peace in the region, development and prosperity instead of war and destruction”. .
At the end of the summit, Bashar al-Assad spoke with the crown prince and de facto ruler of the kingdom, Mohammed bin Salman, welcoming the resumption of relations between the two countries after 11 years of rupture, according to the agency. Syrian official press SANA.
Earlier in the day, he had met Tunisian President Kais Saied and Emirati Vice President Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed.
The United Arab Emirates, which reconnected with Damascus in 2018, have been very active in reintegrating Damascus into the Arab League.
The Syrian regime also benefited from an outpouring of solidarity after an earthquake which on February 6 devastated large parts of Syria and Turkey.
The communiqué issued after the summit stressed the “need to take effective and efficient measures to achieve a settlement in Syria”.
The Arab heads of state also agreed to “strengthen their cooperation” on issues “related to refugees, terrorism and drug trafficking”, he added.
The war in Syria, where the fighting has almost died out, has left around half a million dead, as well as millions of refugees and displaced persons.
In areas of northern Syria, which still escape the control of the Syrian regime, hundreds of people demonstrated on Friday to denounce President Assad’s participation in the Arab summit, according to an AFP correspondent.
Syria hopes for the normalization of its relations, in particular with the rich monarchies of the Gulf, to finance its costly reconstruction. But countries like Qatar, which has strongly opposed the regime of Bashar al-Assad since the start of the war in Syria, are still reluctant.
According to the SANA agency, the Syrian president on Friday greeted the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani.
The summit is being held in a context of regional detente, marked by the rapprochement in recent months between the Saudi kingdom and its great regional rival, Iran. The host country is also making diplomatic efforts to try to find a solution to the conflicts in Yemen and Sudan.
In addition to the conflicts in the Middle East, the war in Ukraine came to the 32e Arab League summit.
Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky has called on regional leaders to “take an honest look” at the war in his country.
“Unfortunately, some countries around the world and here among you turn a blind eye to these illegal prisons and annexations,” he said.
The Ukrainian president was invited by Saudi Arabia and not by the Arab League, an official of the pan-Arab organization told AFP.
Mr. Zelensky said on social networks that he had also spoken with the Saudi crown prince to discuss in particular the “main points of the Ukrainian peace formula”. He also spoke of other bilateral meetings with the leaders of a region much less united in its support for Ukraine than its European and American allies.
Riyadh has taken a relatively neutral stance on the conflict, playing an unexpected role in September as mediator in a prisoner swap between Moscow and kyiv.
The Arab world’s largest economy and the world’s largest crude exporter coordinates its oil policy with Russia, while maintaining close ties with the United States, its longtime security partner.
Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, on the other hand, a faithful ally of Moscow, is one of the five countries to have voted against the resolutions of the Security Council of the United Nations asking Russia to cease hostilities in Ukraine.