Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman greeted a smiling Assad as the summit began, ending Arab hostility towards a leader who won Syria’s civil war with help from Shi’ite Iran and Russia.
The summit displayed renewed Saudi Arabia efforts to exert influence on the world stage, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy present and Crown Prince Mohammed reaffirming Riyadh’s willingness to mediate in the war with Russia.
Oil giant Saudi Arabia, once strongly influenced by the United States, has taken the diplomatic lead in the Arab world in the past year, restoring ties with Iran, welcoming Syria back to the group, and mediating in the Sudan conflict.
With many Arab states hoping Assad will now take steps to distance Syria from Shi’ite Iran, Assad said the country’s “past, present, and future is Arabism”, but without mentioning Tehran – for decades a close Syrian ally.
In an apparent jab at Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who has supported Syrian rebels and sent Turkish troops into parts of northern Syria, Assad noted the “danger of expansionist Ottoman thought”, describing it as influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood – an Islamist group seen as a foe by Damascus and many other Arab states.
Crown Prince Mohammed said he hoped Syria’s “return to the Arab League leads to the end of its crisis,” 12 years after Arab states suspended Syria as it plunged into a civil war that has killed more than 350,000 people.
Saudi Arabia would “not allow our region to turn into a field of conflicts”, he said, saying the page had been turned on “painful years of struggle”.
Washington has opposed any steps towards normalisation with Assad, saying there must first be progress towards a political solution to the 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.
A Gulf analyst told Reuters that Syria risked becoming a subsidiary of Iran, and asked: “Do we want Syria to be less Arab and more Iranian, or … to come back to the Arab fold?”
Having welcomed back Assad, Arab states also want him to curb a thriving Syrian trade in narcotics, which are being produced in Syria and smuggled across the region.