Saudi Arabia hosted an Arab League summit on Friday in which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was welcomed back after a 12-year suspension and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a surprise visit to rally support against Russia.
Russian air strikes have left a swath of destruction across both countries, but in Syria they came at Mr. al-Assad’s invitation and helped him cling to power through years of grinding civil war. Other Arab states have deepened ties with Moscow while remaining largely neutral on the Ukraine war.
The odd pairing of the two leaders in the same forum is the result of a recent flurry of diplomacy by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is pursuing regional rapprochement with the same vigour he previously brought to the kingdom’s confrontation with archrival Iran.
In recent months, Saudi Arabia has restored diplomatic ties with Iran, is ending the kingdom’s years-long war against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen and led the push for Syria’s return to the 22-member Arab League.
The Saudi Crown Prince welcomed both Mr. al-Assad and Mr. Zelensky to the Red Sea city of Jeddah, expressing support for “whatever helps in reducing the crisis between Russia and Ukraine.” He added that the kingdom, which brokered a prisoner exchange last year, “is ready to exert efforts for mediation.”
Addressing the summit in English, Mr. Zelensky appeared to invoke the Arab world’s own troubled history of invasion and occupation, saying Ukraine “will never submit to any foreigners or colonizers.”
He took a swipe at Iran for supplying attack drones to Russia and spoke about the suffering of Muslim ethnic Tatars living under Russian occupation in Crimea. He also accused some in the hall of “turning a blind eye” to Russia’s violations.
The visit comes amid a whirlwind of international travel by the Ukrainian leader, but until now he has mostly visited allied countries.
Saudi Arabia pledged US$400-million ($540-million) in aid to Ukraine earlier this year and has voted in favour of UN resolutions calling on Russia to end its invasion and opposing the annexation Ukrainian territory. But it has resisted U.S. pressure to increase oil production in order to squeeze Russia’s revenues.
Mr. al-Assad, a close ally of both Russia and Iran, said he hoped the summit would mark a “new stage of Arab solidarity” that would bring peace “instead of war and destruction.” He added that Arab countries should reject “external interference” in their affairs.
A collective statement issued at the conclusion of the summit rejected any “illegitimate foreign presence” in Syria and supported the eventual return of Syrian refugees. It also condemned Israel’s “crimes against the Palestinian people,” called on Lebanon to overcome its political paralysis and encouraged dialogue in Sudan, where rival generals have been at war since last month.
In recent years, Mr. al-Assad’s forces have recaptured much of Syria’s territory from insurgents with crucial military aid from Russia and Iran. Saudi Arabia was a major sponsor of the opposition at the height of the war but pulled back as the insurgents were eventually cornered in a small pocket of northwestern Syria.
“Saudi Arabia’s push to bring Syria back into the fold is part of a broader shift in the kingdom’s approach to regional politics,” says Torbjorn Soltvedt, a leading Mideast analyst at the risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft.
“The previously adventurist foreign policy defined by the Yemen intervention and efforts to confront Iran are now being abandoned in favour of a more cautious approach,” he said.
Mr. al-Assad’s first official meeting on Friday was with his Tunisian counterpart, Kais Saied, who is waging his own crackdown on dissent in the birthplace of the Arab Spring protests that swept the region in 2011.
“We stand together against the movement of darkness,” Mr. al-Assad said, apparently referring to extremist groups that came to dominate the Syrian opposition as the civil war ground on, and which drew large numbers of recruits from Tunisia.
The Saudi Crown Prince later welcomed each leader to the summit, including a smiling Mr. al-Assad. The two shook hands and kissed cheeks before the Syrian leader walked into the hall.
There are some Arab holdouts to Damascus’ rehabilitation, including gas-rich Qatar, which still supports Syria’s opposition and says it won’t normalize bilateral relations without a political solution to the conflict. Qatar’s ruling emir, Sheik Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, attended the start of the summit but walked out before Mr. al-Assad spoke, a Saudi official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release details of the proceedings.
Western countries, which still view Mr. al-Assad as a pariah over his forces’ aerial bombardment and gas attacks against civilians during the 12-year civil war, have criticized his return to the Arab fold and vowed to maintain crippling sanctions that have hampered reconstruction.
Years of heavy fighting involving Mr. al-Assad’s forces, the opposition and jihadi outfits like the Islamic State group left entire villages and neighbourhoods in ruins. The conflict killed nearly a half-million people and displaced half of the country’s pre-war population of 23 million.
American lawmakers advanced bipartisan legislation this week that would further tighten sanctions on Mr. al-Assad, who came to power in 2000 after the death of his father. But the White House National Security Council expressed concern Friday that the additional measures “would make it unduly difficult to provide humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people.”
The U.S. administration remains committed to a road map to peace drafted more than a decade ago. But several rounds of peace talks held over the years went nowhere, and Mr. al-Assad has had little incentive to compromise since Russia entered the war on his side.
Arab leaders appear to be focused on more modest goals, like enlisting Mr. al-Assad’s help in countering militant groups and drug traffickers, and bringing about the return of Syrian refugees, many of whom fled to escape his autocratic rule.
Asked about American criticism of the restoration of relations with Syria, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said “there is no way to solve the Syrian crisis without a dialogue with the Syrian government.”
“There is a humanitarian crisis. There are Syrian refugees who want to return to their country,” he said.