A less vibrant Arab stance, No speech from al-Assad and no summit in Damascus

Regime’s head Bashar al-Assad participates in the Arab Summit in Bahrain - May 16, 2024 (Syrian Presidency)

Regime’s head Bashar al-Assad participates in the Arab Summit in Bahrain - May 16, 2024 (Syrian Presidency)


Enab Baladi – Hussam al-Mahmoud

In the Bahraini capital, Manama, the 33rd session of the Arab Summit was convened, with the participation of the Syrian regime’s president, Bashar al-Assad.

The summit, which paid significant attention to the Palestinian issue as reflected in the subsequent Arab leaders’ statement, partially addressed the situation in Syria, quietly but still rich in messages on a Syrian level.

The Iraqi President, Abdul Latif Jamal Rashid, was the only president who explicitly addressed the Syrian dossier in his speech, despite Lebanon mentioning the refugee issue.

During his speech at the summit held on May 16, the Iraqi president announced that his country would host the next summit, the 34th session in 2025, instead of Syria which was supposed to host it, saying, “I would like to express our thanks and gratitude to the Syrian Arab Republic for agreeing to pass on the regular session 34 for the year 2025 in favor of Iraq, and we eagerly await to welcome our brethren in Baghdad.”

He also affirmed his country’s support for any positive developments that would contribute to ending the internal conflict in Syria, renewing Iraq’s commitment to maintaining Syria’s territorial integrity and working towards clearing it of any threats to security and stability, along with reconstruction and ensuring a free and dignified life for the Syrian people.

After the Arab leaders’ speeches about the situation in Gaza, emphasizing the need to cease fire and call for the recognition of an independent Palestinian state, the summit’s concluding statement, named “Bahrain Declaration,” reiterated that the solution in Syria must go through the gate of UN Resolution “2254”.

While the Manama Summit was the second regular Arab summit attended by al-Assad after a 12-year absence, it did not include a speech by al-Assad who remained silent, unlike the previous summit. This summit was the first to emphasize the resolution “2254” which reflects the ongoing transitional phase in Syria, unlike the Jeddah Declaration which followed the previous summit in Saudi Arabia and only welcomed back Syria, emphasizing its Arab identity and recovery efforts.

No summit in Damascus, Syrian presence in name only, and the side meetings that followed the summit not only lacked any diplomatic breakthrough, but also reduced their effectiveness compared to before, limited to meetings between al-Assad and the King of Bahrain, the Saudi Crown Prince, and the Iraqi President, after meeting the Egyptian President on the sidelines of the Arab-Islamic summit in Saudi Arabia on October 12, 2023, and meeting both the Tunisian President and the Vice President of the UAE at the Jeddah Summit.

Next summit in Baghdad

The Iraqi announcement of hosting the next Arab summit, and the Iraqi president’s talk of a “Syrian concession”, coincided with informal talks about a tension in Arab relations with the Syrian regime, justified by the lack of progress in the Arab proposal for settling the conflict in Syria through the “Jordanian Initiative” which had laid out what was required from the regime and what was offered in return, yet the outcomes after about a year of presenting the initiative completely contradicted its contents.

Mahmoud Alloush, a researcher in international relations, explained to Enab Baladi that what al-Assad desires from the summit is to completely break his Arab isolation and demonstrate that he has won the war, and that the Arab world is dealing with him as a strong president of Syria, meaning that he would not miss the opportunity to host an Arab summit in Damascus. However, the Arab opening towards al-Assad is still limited and has not yet elevated to a level that lifts al-Assad out of his isolation and initiates mass Arab leader visits to Damascus.

According to Alloush, the Arab states are becoming more cautious in their approach towards the Syrian regime, carefully measuring the potential benefits of this openness. There is also increasing awareness that offering incentives to al-Assad could ultimately lead to adverse outcomes, and the United States is also increasingly pressuring its Arab allies to prevent them from going too far in rehabilitating al-Assad.

In conclusion of the Arab Summit’s proceedings, the Bahrain Declaration emphasized the need to end the Syrian crisis in line with the Security Council Resolution “2254”, preserving Syria’s security, sovereignty, and territorial integrity, fulfilling the aspirations of its people, freeing it from “terrorism”, and providing an environment conducive to the dignified, safe, and voluntary return of refugees.

Researcher Mahmoud Alloush noted the lack of consensus on the current Arab position towards the regime, with every country measuring its steps based on its interests and ambitions in Syria.

“The Arab policy towards Syria still lacks a long-term strategic vision that is coherent and capable of making the Arabs influential in the conflict’s trajectory instead of being on the sidelines,”Alloush stated.

As for al-Assad’s silent participation in the summit, the researcher considered it an enhancement of the perception that he is no longer ostracized among the Arabs, but this participation also reflects the dilemma facing Arab policies; if the goal of the openness towards the regime is to rehabilitate him to adjust to the reality that he has won the war, this will not lead to ending the conflict or restoring the Arab role in Syria. If the goal is to encourage him to accept a political process, this openness reinforces his belief that he has won and that there is no longer any need for political steps as long as the world has returned to dealing with him as president, as per Alloush.

Al-Assad remains silent

With the announcement of al-Assad’s travel to Manama to participate in the Arab Summit, the regime-affiliated newspaper Al-Watan reported, citing “informed” sources, that al-Assad will not deliver a speech at the summit despite a provision of up to three minutes for each country to speak. It clarified that al-Assad’s participation would focus on discussions and dialogues with the participating leaders about the files listed in the agenda, especially Arab-Arab relations and the developments in Palestine.

The official Syrian news agency (SANA) also stated that al-Assad would not deliver a speech during the summit, which discusses a number of issues he had already made clear positions on, including Arab nationalism, the Palestinian cause, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the reforms of the Arab League.

Simultaneously with the summit, the local radio station Sham FM, quoting “observant” sources, reported that al-Assad focused his participation on the importance of discussions and research in the files included in the summit, rather than delivering speeches, thus he did not give a speech, which had been decided since al-Assad was invited to the summit.

This approach is in contrast with the summit’s agenda, which had set the order of speeches for representatives of the Arab nations, and which indeed proceeded as previously planned, except for skipping al-Assad’s speech and moving on to the next.

In this context, Al-Modon newspaper mentioned that information conflicted about the reasons, between al-Assad’s refusal to speak as long as the allotted time was only three minutes, the ongoing various disputes, and al-Assad’s desire not to repeat last year’s experience of lecturing Arab presidents. Also, he must consider his Arab stance, characterized by distancing himself from the events in Gaza.

The Manama Summit is considered the second regular Arab summit with al-Assad’s participation since 2010 (he participated then in the Sirte Summit in Libya), following his participation in the summit held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on May 19, 2023.

This is also the third summit for al-Assad since 2010, after the Arab-Islamic summit on November 11, 2023, which focused on the developments in the Gaza Strip. The two summits, Arab and Islamic, were merged in coordination with the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

At that time, al-Assad met for the first time since the outbreak of the revolution in Syria in 2011, in the same hall, with presidents and leaders of countries that have been politically hostile to his regime.


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