President Bashar al-Assad of Syria traveled to Saudi Arabia on Friday for an Arab League meeting, marking the resumption of regular interactions between regional leaders and Damascus almost a decade after the city was isolated during the regime’s brutal assault on a popular uprising that sparked a civil war.
Since he has made no demands about the future handling of Syria’s millions of refugees, his return home represents a turning point in regional affairs and seems to confirm Assad’s commitment and cruelty. Even though Assad has lost significant territory in the north and millions of Syrians have fled to nations that are opposed to his leadership, his opponents point out that he is still battling to maintain control of the country.
Arab states have increased their re-engagement with Assad in an attempt to convince him to address transnational issues such as the hardship of millions of refugees and the multi-billion-dollar illegal narcotics trade, reflecting a change in regional priorities. Diplomatic attempts are underway between the West and the Arab governments, headed by Saudi Arabia, to lift sanctions on the pariah state and encourage refugees to return home. Syrian, Saudi, Egyptian, Jordanian, and Iraqi foreign ministers convened last month and approved the proposal unanimously, just before Arab governments decided to readmit Syria to the Arab League after a 12-year absence.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib said on Wednesday that the Arab League is coordinating with Syria to make it easier for Syrian refugees in Lebanon and abroad to return home. After the Assad government returned to the Arab fold, Bou Habib’s insistence that displaced Syrians living in Lebanon not be forcibly repatriated became a major sticking point in negotiations.
The Syrian Opposition Coalition issued a strongly worded statement condemning Assad’s attendance at the summit, calling it a “deplorable endorsement of his heinous crimes against the Syrian people” that “insults the victims who await justice and abandons the Syrian people who yearn for freedom.”
Despite the Arab League’s reputation for infighting and ineffectiveness, Riyadh is optimistic that a truce in Sudan and Yemen would result from this summit.
In Yemen, where Iran backs Houthi rebels trying to topple the Saudi-backed, UN-recognized government, the newest Saudi-Iranian accord brokered by the Chinese offers restored optimism that peace can be reached. It is uncertain whether and under what conditions Iran would stop backing the Houthis.
Successful implementation of the refugee policy might lead to the United States and Europe lifting sanctions on Syria, allowing the country to begin rebuilding from the damage inflicted by the civil conflict. According to two sources with knowledge of the matter, the idea is now being debated at the “highest levels” of the United Nations. Opponents said that the idea was dangerous because it relied on guarantees of protection from Damascus and may lead to the forcible repatriation of some refugees.
About 6 million Syrians have left the nation since the civil conflict began 12 years ago, and another 6 million have been displaced inside Syria itself. Damascus’s regime, aided by Iran and Russia, has ruthlessly put down the uprising and retaken control of much of the country.
Human rights organizations are worried that the government may follow through with the refugee proposal, which was initially offered by Jordan around two years ago but was postponed owing to pressure from Washington and other western capitals.
Human rights violations have been accused in connection with the repatriation of Syrian refugees to regions under government control. Despite a decline in warfare, human rights organisations continue to allege arrests, disappearances, conscription, and persecution of returnees in Syria. Not all of the returnees have been permitted to return to their villages, however; some have been herded into government-maintained temporary shelters under the watchful eye of security officials.
Arab League deputy secretary general for political affairs Khaled Manzlawiy wrote in the newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat on Wednesday that the summit should discuss matters other than those in the Middle East, such as the situation in Ukraine and “the global economic crisis.” This unscheduled trip provides Ukrainian President Zelensky a chance to meet with Middle Eastern leaders, who have been less unified in their support of Kyiv than their Western counterparts, given his last visit there was before Moscow’s invasion in February 2022.
According to Arab officials, talks have taken place with Western nations, but sanctions will not be lifted until progress is made. This is an Arab-led effort in coordination with the UN and international stakeholders; it has to be assessed at one point in time, and then it should be taken from there.
[Photo by kremlin.ru, via Wikimedia Commons]
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