Jeddah: Syrian President Bashar Al Assad was given a warm welcome at an Arab summit on Friday, winning a hug from Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince at a meeting of leaders who had shunned him for years, in a policy shift opposed by the US and other Western powers.
Assad was joined at the summit by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who wants to build support for Kyiv’s battle against Russia.
At the summit, Zelensky urged countries to support his peace initiative to end Russia's war in Ukraine.
Zelensky, who is making his first trip to Saudi Arabia, said in an address that delegates would each receive the text of the 10-point peace plan and asked them to work with Ukraine directly without intermediaries.
Zelensky urged leaders at the summit to resist Moscow’s influence and consider his peace proposals, which include the withdrawal of the Kremlin’s forces from Ukraine.
“Another priority is the protection of the Muslim community of Ukraine,” Zelensky said.
“We reaffirm the kingdom’s readiness to continue mediating efforts between Russia and Ukraine, and to support all international efforts aimed at resolving the crisis politically in a way that contributes to achieving security,” the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman said in his opening speech.
Gulf states have tried to remain neutral in the Ukraine conflict despite Western pressure on Gulf oil producers to help isolate Russia, a fellow OPEC+ member.
Syria’s readmission to the Arab League is a strong signal that Assad’s isolation of more than a decade is ending.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad 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 ahead of the start of the meeting.
Saudi Arabia, once heavily influenced by the United States, has taken the diplomatic lead in the Arab world in the past year, re-establishing ties with Iran, welcoming Syria back to the fold, and mediating in the Sudan conflict.
“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.
Alongside the return of millions of refugees who fled Syria, the captagon trade has become a big worry for Arab leaders, on a par with their concern about the foothold established by Iran in Syria.
The war has shattered Syria’s once productive economy, demolishing infrastructure, cities and factories and Assad would no doubt benefit from Gulf investment in his battered country.
The Arab rapprochement with Assad gained momentum after China negotiated an agreement in March that saw Riyadh resume diplomatic ties with Iran, which with Russia has helped Assad defeat Sunni rebels and regain control of some major cities.
A large swathe of Syria, however, remains under Turkish-backed rebels and radical Islamist groups as well as a US-backed Kurdish militia.
Finding a political solution to the 12-year-old conflict remains a big dilemma for Arab and Western countries.
According to UNHCR since 2011, more than 14 million Syrians have been forced to flee their homes. Around 6.8 million Syrians remain internally displaced in their own country where 90 percent of the population live below the poverty line.
More than 350,000 were killed. Approximately 5.5 million Syrian refugees live in the five countries neighbouring Syria” Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.
Assad is expected to address the summit later on Friday, in a striking diplomatic realignment. At an Arab summit hosted by Qatar a decade ago, the Syrian opposition sat in Syria’s seat.
Ahead of the summit, the US reiterated its opposition to normalisation of relations with Damascus.
“We do not believe that Syria should be (afforded) re-entry into the Arab League,” US State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel told reporters in Washington, adding sanctions should not be lifted.
But Patel added that “we have a number of shared objectives” such as bringing home Austin Tice, a former US marine and journalist who was kidnapped in Syria in 2012.