Syria’s Assad says Arab League has ‘historic opportunity’ to address regional future

This year's event marks the return of Syria's Bashar Al Assad and includes invitation to Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelenskyy

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Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad, in his first address since returning to the Arab League on Friday, said the Arab world had a historic opportunity to discuss its future and focus on co-operation without further foreign interference.

Mr Al Assad began his speech in Jeddah by using an analogy of a doctor who cannot treat his patients “without knowing the symptoms” – a nod to his history as a dentist before he became President of Syria in 2000 after his father’s death.

“We are facing a historic opportunity to rearrange our situation,” Mr Al Assad told the Arab League. “Syria’s past, present and future are rooted in its Arab blood.”

Mr Al Assad, who returns to the Arab League following 12 years of isolation, spoke after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the body.

The Syrian leader urged the Arab League to revamp its system and mechanisms to “keep pace with the times”.

“The crises in the region are caused by cracks that have arisen in the Arab world,” he said.

“We must continue to prevent outside interference in our own internal affairs. There’s hope in the increasing Arab rapprochement and the launch of a new phase of joint action.”

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began his address by calling for efforts to reduce conflict in the region.

“We assure friendly countries in the East and the West that we are moving forward in peace,” Prince Mohammed said.

“We will no longer allow for our region to be a zone filled by conflicts and aggression. We have to open a new page following the past.”

He also welcomed Mr Al Assad back to the Arab League and added that Riyadh hoped Syria’s return would mark the beginning of the end of the country's 12-year civil conflict.

The Saudi Crown Prince again said the kingdom was willing to mediate between Russia and Ukraine.

“We express the kingdom's readiness to continue mediating efforts between Russia and Ukraine and to support all international efforts aimed at resolving the crisis politically, in a way that contributes to achieving security and peace,” he said.

'Here for the sake of peace'

Mr Zelenskyy, the summit’s last-minute guest, said his first visit to Jeddah was intended to enhance Ukraine’s ties with the Arab world.

The Ukrainian leader said he would address the summit and discuss the treatment of Muslim Tatars living under Russian control in the Crimean peninsula. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

“I hope we are all here for the sake of peace and for the sake of justice,” Mr Zelenskyy told the audience.

“We do not have missiles as our enemies do, we have less air power, we do not have much artillery but we stay strong because we have truth on our side.

“Ukrainians have never chosen the war. Our troops didn’t go to other lands. We do not engage in annexations and plunder of other nations’ resources. We will never submit to any invaders and colonisers.”

The visit marks one of several international forays by the Ukrainian leader, but until now he has mostly visited allied countries.

During his speech, Mr Zelenskyy said some Arab leaders have “turned a blind eye” to some aspects of Russia’s invasion of his country.

“Unfortunately, there are some in the world and here, among you, who turn a blind eye to those cages and illegal annexations,” Mr Zelenskyy told the summit, urging delegates to “take an honest look” at the war.

Iraqi Prime Minister welcomes Syria return

Iraq’s Prime Minister Mohammed Al Sudani said in his address that Baghdad welcomed the return of Syria to the league and stressed its “support for a joint Arab action towards ending the regional conflicts”.

Mr Al Sudani called on the Arab League “to build an economic bloc [and] invest in Arab resources”.

He said the Iraqi people have “stood up and made the greatest sacrifices to protect Iraq, the region and the world”.

“We must investigate all angles of economic integration between our country, and therefore Iraq will host several conferences, including Baghdad 2023,” he said.

Meanwhile, before the summit in Jeddah on Friday, Mr Al Assad met Tunisian President Kais Saied.

Following months of diplomatic wrangling and efforts by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Mr Al Assad, once viewed as a pariah, finally touched down in the coastal city last night after the kingdom managed to gather enough consensus to reinstate Syria.

Mr Al Assad appeared relaxed as he was greeted on the tarmac by Prince Badr bin Sultan, deputy governor of Makkah, along with Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit and several Saudi officials.

The heads of states of the UAE, Kuwait, Morocco, Algeria, Oman, Sudan and Lebanon sent their deputies or representatives to the summit.

Updated: May 20, 2023, 4:00 AM