How Assad and Zelenskyy became an Arab League balancing act

Summit's hosts oversaw a surprise visit by the Ukrainian leader that took some of the spotlight off the return of Syria's president

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during the Arab summit in Jeddah on Friday. The Syrian leader's attendance marked the end of 12 years of isolation from the organisation. AP
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As journalists from across the Middle East (including me) descended upon Jeddah’s Ritz Carlton hotel last weekend for the Arab League summit, much of their attention was focused on the closely watched return of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to the organisation.

At the last minute, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a surprise visit as the summit’s guest of honour, perhaps to take some of the spotlight away Mr Al Assad and what he might say in his first speech on the regional stage since his crackdown on peaceful protesters led to a civil war that is thought to have left 500,000 dead since 2011.

The Saudi hosts' play of balancing Mr Al Assad with Mr Zelenskyy, a wartime leader who enjoys near-total support in the West, paid dividends; many European and American media outlets directed their lenses and headlines towards him instead.

Besides genuinely wanting to hear what Mr Zelenskyy had to say his Arab counterparts, the Saudis were trying to showcase their ability to play a mediator role in conflicts further afield before moving on to regional ones. In September of last year, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman held successful mediation sessions to release 10 prisoners from various countries as part of a prisoner exchange process between Russia and Ukraine.

For years, including the weeks leading up to the summit, the term rehabilitation has dominated the narrative in analysts' discussions of Arab-led efforts to reach out to Mr Al Assad and bring him back into the Arab fold.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman welcomes Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during the Arab League summit. Many European and American media outlets directed their attention to the Ukrainian leader, rather than Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. AFP

But Saudi officials and commentators at the summit focused on the word “recalibration”, not rehabilitation.

“Rehabilitation” means restoring someone to health or normality. When we talk of “rehab” outside of politics, we often refer to therapy after imprisonment, addiction or illness. Even within politics, any PR agent will tell you that rehabilitating an image usually involves showing the public some evidence of remorse or restitution. But Mr Al Assad’s behaviour – both prior to and after his presence in Jeddah – does not really fit within that definition. Not yet, anyway.

The motivation to allow the Syrian regime back into the Arab fold has been going on for some time. Among those that first began steps towards rapprochement with Mr Al Assad’s government included Jordan, which joined the Astana peace talks in 2017 between representatives of the Syrian government and some armed opposition groups as an observer. In the summer of 2021, Jordan’s King Abdullah II told CNN that Mr Al Assad had “longevity” and that there was a “need to talk with the regime”.

In 2018, the UAE began backing the view that resolving the Syrian conflict without the Syrian government’s participation was not yielding results. That year, Dr Anwar Gargash, who was the UAE's minister of state for foreign affairs at the time, told The National that what motivated the Emirates' policy on re-engaging with Mr Al Assad was a failure of diplomacy up to that point by the international community. The concerns facing the Arab world, Dr Gargash said, could only be addressed by what he called a moderate "Arab centre" that could deal with a region marked by turbulence since 2011.

Saudi Arabia, as the host and holder of the presidency of the Arab League for this year, seems to agree.

“We will not allow our region to turn into fields of conflicts, and it is enough for us to turn the page on the past by remembering the painful years of conflicts that the region lived through, and its people suffered from, and the development process that has faltered because of it,” Prince Mohammed said at the summit.

The Saudis were trying to showcase their ability to play a mediator role in conflicts further afield before moving on to regional ones

Such statements suggest Saudi and Emirati officials are pragmatic about their approach toward de-escalation in the region. And when it comes to Syria, achieving foreign policy goals by setting pre-conditions and asking Mr Al Assad to make pledges has proven largely futile and unproductive.

The content of Mr Al Assad’s address to the summit was also in the spirit of recalibration. He avoided any mention of direct policy changes regarding the safe return of refugees or any promises his government might have made to its Arab neighbours. Mr Al Assad spoke more about the sentiment and tone underlying his return rather than the concrete results it might yield.

“A person can move from one embrace to another, but he does not change his roots, and whoever changes would not have belonged in the first place … Syria is the heart of Arabism and Arabism is in its heart,” Mr Al Assad told his peers.

But as the Secretary General of the Arab League, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, told The National prior to the summit, Syria’s return is only a part of the journey – not the end result.

The final press conference of the summit, chaired by Mr Aboul Gheit and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, was an apt analogy for how far the Arab world has yet to go. The spirit of mutual dialogue was put to the test when reporters from Syrian state television were given a chance to ask two questions to Mr Aboul Gheit and Prince Faisal.

A reporter from the television channel Al Ikhbariyah delivered what was really more of a monologue on how the West has stood between Damascus and the Arab world, before abruptly asking Mr Aboul Gheit his thoughts on what he would do after the “Arab street no longer paid any or much attention to the Arab League’s work and mechanisms”.

The Arab League chief clearly felt provoked, responding that he did not agree with her premise that the League has lost influence on the Arab street, particularly given the level of media and political attention it has brought over the past several months in anticipation of Mr Al Assad’s return.

Another Syrian state television reporter then tried repeatedly to interrupt other journalists' questions before officials had to cut the event short because Mr Aboul Gheit was running late for his flight back to Cairo.

Ahmed Moussa, a popular Egyptian television anchor, managed to get the microphone after Mr Aboul Gheit called on him, but used it to publicly chide the Syrian journalist for her “behaviour that was not befitting of the stature of Aboul Gheit”. He was subsequently cautioned by Prince Faisal to stick to the decorum of the press conference.

“It’s ironic that this quarrel spoiled the end of the summit,” a Saudi official told me after the conference. “But that is an analogy of how far we still have to go in listening to each other despite our difference in approaches toward further co-operation, especially after a decade of not seeing eye-to-eye on a lot of issues.”

Published: May 24, 2023, 2:00 PM