President Bashar al-Assad of Syria plans to attend a gathering of Arab leaders on Friday for the first time since he violently suppressed an anti-government uprising that morphed into a civil war, torturing and using chemical weapons on his own people.
Syria’s membership in the Arab League, suspended since 2011, was restored this month ahead of the leaders’ summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Ayman Sousan, Syria’s assistant foreign minister, told a Saudi-owned newspaper, Asharq Al Awsat, on Wednesday that Mr. al-Assad intended to attend the meeting. Mr. Sousan added that he hoped the summit would “open a new stage.”
Welcoming Mr. al-Assad is a major turnaround for many Arab states, which cut ties with him as he laid siege to entire towns in an effort to defeat rebel forces after an Arab Spring uprising, oversaw a prison system rife with torture and mass executions and sent millions of refugees fleeing to neighboring countries. The civil war that erupted killed hundreds of thousands of people, and Syria remains mired in an economic and humanitarian crisis.
Saudi Arabia initially supported some of the rebel groups fighting against Mr. al-Assad’s forces, supplying them with funding and weapons in covert coordination with the United States.
But as the years passed and Mr. al-Assad held onto power, Arab governments have gradually shifted their approach. The United Arab Emirates restored ties with Syria in 2018, while Oman never cut them. Both countries have already hosted Mr. al-Assad on official visits and have been pushing for Syria’s return to the “Arab fold.” That effort failed to gain momentum until Saudi Arabia, the regional political heavyweight, more recently got on board.
The region’s challenges require that its countries stand together in “one line” and “refuse external interference,” Prince Faisal bin Farhan, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, said at a gathering of Arab foreign ministers on Wednesday, ahead of the summit.
Now, many Arab countries are dealing openly with Mr. al-Assad, arguing that shunning him did not achieve their objectives. The goals vary from country to country, but for Saudi officials they include countering the influence of Iran — the kingdom’s regional rival and Mr. al-Assad’s close ally — as well as blocking the trade of captagon, an illicit amphetamine, across Syria’s borders and into the kingdom. For other countries, including Jordan, the most immediate concern is the fate of the Syrian refugees who remain in their countries.
Friday’s summit will “offer Arab solutions to Arab problems,” said Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the Arab League’s secretary general. Speaking to Syrian state news media after a preparatory meeting on Wednesday, Syria’s foreign minister, Faisal al-Mekdad, said that the atmosphere had been “comfortable” and that his country was eager to “work together with our Arab brothers.” Asked whether Mr. al-Assad would attend the summit, he said only that Syria “cannot be absent from the league.”
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.
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