What will al-Assad say if he attends the Arab summit? Opportunities and gains
Enab Baladi – Muhammed Fansa
After the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, received an official invitation to attend the Arab summit, as a result of Arab normalization efforts that resulted in the regime re-occupying Syria’s seat in the Arab League, questions arise about the possibility of al-Assad representing the delegation heading to Jeddah on Friday, and the expected gains from his presence.
On May 10, al-Assad received an official invitation from the Saudi monarch, Salman bin Abdulaziz, to attend the 32nd Arab summit in Saudi Arabia, on May 19, through the Saudi ambassador to Jordan, Nayef al-Sudairi.
If he attends, this will be the first participation of the Syrian regime in the Arab summit meetings since its membership was frozen in 2011.
The invitation comes in light of the acceleration of diplomatic moves between Saudi Arabia and the Syrian regime to normalize relations between them since April. The most recent of these moves was the announcement by the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in parallel with handing over the invitation to attend the summit, to resume the work of its diplomatic mission in Syria.
Similarly, the regime’s foreign ministry announced the return of the diplomatic mission, with expectations that the embassy in Riyadh would open at the end of May or early June.
On Wednesday, Arab foreign ministers in Saudi Arabia welcomed Syria back to the Arab League and called for a cease-fire in conflict-hit Sudan ahead of the organization’s annual summit taking place in the kingdom, according to The Associated Press.
Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, said Wednesday that the region is at a crossroads, facing a host of challenges. He called for cooperation between Arab countries to achieve security, stability, and economic prosperity, the AP reported.
Bin Farhan also welcomed Syria’s return, as did the League’s Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Algerian Foreign Minister Ahmed Attaf.
The diplomatic moves that put al-Assad on the verge of attending the Arab summit began when the regime’s foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, visited the Saudi kingdom after receiving an official invitation from his Saudi counterpart, Faisal bin Farhan, on April 12.
The visit concluded with an agreement to resume consular services and flights between the two countries.
Mekdad’s visit to Riyadh was followed by a visit by Minister bin Farhan to Damascus, during which he met al-Assad on April 18.
After the two visits, Saudi Arabia began extensive moves that led to the return of the regime to the League of Arab States on May 7, so that the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, came out in a press conference following the decision to return by saying, “Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will be welcome to participate in the Arab League summit if he so desires.
After the Syrian regime received the invitation to attend the upcoming Arab summit, the foreign ministry said that “it received with interest” the decision, although all the “friendly countries” of the regime welcomed the step.
Lina al-Khatib, director of the Middle East Foundation at SOAS University in London, told Enab Baladi that al-Assad is likely to attend the Arab summit himself, to send a message to the international community and to the Syrians that he has “won the war.”
Mohamed Salem, a researcher at the Syrian Dialogue Center, agrees with this opinion in an interview with Enab Baladi, as he believes that inviting al-Assad to attend the summit is a great opportunity for him to show his “victory” after being isolated for a long time, believing that al-Assad will try to attend to exploit this opportunity.
According to Salem, the regime has several goals for attending the summit, most notably, the media review that sends a message of its “victory” and the return of the Arabs to it and the change in their position, which the regime’s media will exploit for a long time during the talk about the return of the Arabs to “Syria, the beating heart of Arabism,” the wisdom and steadfastness of the “leader” and the like.
The Syrian regime can also achieve a marketing gain by attending the summit, according to the researcher, in addition to the possibility of other meetings on the sidelines of the summit.
For her part, al-Khatib believes that the regime’s biggest gain from attending the Arab summit is that this attendance solidifies the idea of the “legitimacy of the regime” in the Arab region, and it hopes that this step will open a door for its reintegration into the international community in the future.
After the end of the summit, the director of the Middle East Foundation at SOAS University expects an increase in the rate of interaction between the regime and some Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, but the relationship with Qatar will not change in the near future, despite the regime’s attendance at the summit.
According to a report issued by the Jusoor Center for Studies on May 9, the actual effects of the decision to return the regime to the Arab League seem “limited” at the current stage, and its impact is limited to the diplomatic and media levels.
The return of the regime to the League will not affect the economic situation in Syria or reconstruction, which are the actual gains that the regime is looking forward to, and the “conditional return,” whether formal or actual, weakens the impact of the decision even from the media point of view for the regime, which justifies the absence of welcoming the decision, according to Jusoor Center.
Will it be al-Assad’s 12th summit?
Bashar al-Assad has not missed attending any Arab summit since he took over power in Syria in 2000, succeeding his father, starting with the Cairo summit on October 21, 2000, and ending with the Sirte summit in Libya in 2010, as he attended 11 Arab summits before Syria’s membership in the Arab League was frozen in 2012.
Al-Assad came close to attending the last edition of the Arab League summit in Algeria in 2022, as Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune stated in August 2022 that Algeria seeks “with all its might to make Syria’s return to the Arab League a success.”
After influential and key Arab countries, at the level of the Syrian file, adhered to their refusal to return the regime to the “Arab bosom,” the absence of the regime from the Algeria summit seemed obvious, especially after the statements of the then Algerian Foreign Minister, Ramtan Lamamra, in September 2022, following a contact he had with his Syrian counterpart, Faisal Mekdad, who confirmed that the regime prefers not to raise the issue of resuming the Syrian seat in the Arab League.
There are speculations about the form of the speech that will be issued by al-Assad at the next summit if he participates, and he has repeatedly accused the Arabs, especially the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, of “supporting terrorists in Syria” on many occasions.
While his speeches before the start of the Syrian revolution during his participation in the Arab summits were long and rhetorical compared to the speeches of other delegations.
A researcher at the Syrian Dialogue Center, Mohamed Salem, believes that al-Assad is likely to come out with a rhetorical speech with some kind of appeasement towards the Arabs, similar to what he said in one of his meetings with Russian media about Saudi Arabia a while ago.
In an interview with the Russia Today channel on March 16, al-Assad explained that “Saudi policy has taken a different direction towards Syria for years, and it has not interfered in Syria’s internal affairs, nor has it supported any of the factions.”
The head of the regime pointed out that “Syria is no longer an arena of a Saudi- Iranian conflict, as was the case at some stages, and by some sides.”
The regime is trying to restore its previous relations with the Arab countries, headed by Saudi Arabia, considering that the doors are closed to it from the West, in light of the United States remaining on its policy and continuing to impose sanctions on the regime and its Iranian and Russian allies.
On November 12, 2011, the Arab League suspended the participation of Syrian regime delegations in its meetings and all its affiliated organizations and bodies eight months after the start of the Syrian revolution and the demands of its opponents to freeze the regime’s membership.
At the Arab summit in Doha in 2013, the then Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, during his opening of the summit, called on the former president of the Syrian National Coalition, Ahmed Muaz al-Khatib, the head of the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) at the time, Ghassan Hitto, and the rest of the members of the opposition delegation to take Syria’s seat and raise the flag of Independence adopted by the Syrian opposition.
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