It was, of course, a moment of pure theatre, apparently stage-managed by Russia. But the handshake on the tarmac at Damascus airport between Bashar Al Assad of Syria and Omar Al Bashir, the president of Sudan, offered a glimpse of the political manoeuvring taking place behind the scenes as Syria's bloody war nears its final act. Mr Al Bashir's visit to Syria is the first by the leader of a member of the 22-state Arab League since 2011, when the organisation recognised the opposition national coalition as the legitimate representative of the people and suspended Syria's membership.
Sudan is not a major regional player. It is, however, one of a number of African states coming increasingly into Russia’s orbit, as Moscow extends its influence in the region through arms and trade deals. The world has reluctantly accepted that Mr Al Assad has a role to play in Syria’s future. This is a reality reflected in the UN’s faltering attempts to engage the regime in the establishment of a constitutional committee to lay the groundwork for democratic post-war Syria. The UN’s peace plan makes clear that, unlike his father, Mr Al Assad should not imagine that he has a job for life. The vision is for free, fair and independently administered elections that will lead to “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance”.
The sudden and unannounced appearance on Syrian soil of Mr Al Bashir, however, appears to be part of a Russian attempt to re-establish Mr Al Assad's legitimacy on the world stage. If so, Moscow's choice of actor for its photo opportunity with the Syrian leader – a man guilty of numerous crimes against his own people – is an unedifying piece of casting. Mr Al Bashir himself is wanted by the Hague-based International Criminal Court for war crimes committed in his own country.
It is clear that the Arab League does need to be involved in Syria’s future, if only to counterbalance Iran’s influence. As things stand, the league has no voice in next week’s scheduled talks in Geneva between the UN special envoy and high-level officials from Iran, Russia and Turkey, a last-ditch attempt to form Syria’s constitutional committee. Quite what Mr Al Assad hoped to gain by posing alongside another leader ostracised by the international community for crimes against his own people remains unclear. But whatever the true significance of the meeting, no amount of clumsily stage-managed handshakes can erase the memory of the atrocities committed by Mr Al Assad in a bitter conflict that has created millions of refugees and killed more than half a million Syrians.