Syria ended more than a decade of Arab League exile on Monday when its officials took part in a preparatory session ahead of Friday’s summit in Saudi Arabia.
“I… take this opportunity to welcome the Syrian Arab Republic to the League of Arab States,” Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan said at the meeting, which was broadcast live on the channel state television station Al Ekhbariya.
Jadaan added that he was “looking forward to working with everyone to achieve what we aspire to” as the camera panned over to the Syrian delegation.
It was the first time Syrian officials had participated in an Arab League meeting since the body suspended Damascus in November 2011 over its violent crackdown on protests that escalated into a conflict that has killed more than 500,000 people and displaced millions.
Earlier this month, the pan-Arab body officially welcomed the Syrian government, ensuring the return of President Bashar al-Assad to the Arab fold.
Saudi King Salman invited Assad to attend Friday’s summit in the Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah, which would be his first since the 2010 meeting in Libya.
Regional capitals have gradually moved closer to Assad as he has clung to power and reclaimed lost territory with crucial support from Iran and Russia.
The United Arab Emirates restored ties with Syria in 2018 and has been leading the recent charge to reintegrate Damascus.
– ‘Arab solidarity’ –
Diplomatic activity picked up after a deadly earthquake struck Syria and Turkey on February 6.
A decision in March by Saudi Arabia and Iran, a close ally of Damascus, to resume ties has also changed the regional political landscape.
Riyadh, which cut ties with Assad’s government in 2012 and has long openly advocated the removal of the Syrian leader, confirmed last week that work would resume at the two countries’ respective diplomatic missions.
But while Syria’s front lines have mostly calmed down, much of the north remains out of government control and no political solution to the conflict is in sight.
Top diplomats from nine Arab countries discussed the Syrian crisis in Saudi Arabia last month, and five regional foreign ministers, including Syria’s, met in Jordan on May 1.
Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit said Monday that Syria’s return could revive “the principle of Arab solidarity,” according to a statement issued by his deputy, Hossam Zaki.
– ‘Serious challenges’ –
But not all countries in the region have rushed to repair ties with Assad.
Qatar said this month that it would not normalize relations with the Assad government, but also said this would not be “an obstacle” to the reintegration of the Arab League.
Aboul Gheit said the “positive atmosphere” created by the end of some disputes in the region “should not take us away from the reality that the Arab region has been witnessing for years, which is the accumulation and overlap of serious challenges.”
Among these, he added, was “a new wave of displacement”, a likely reference to the month-long conflict in Sudan, which has caused nearly 200,000 people to flee the country and displaced hundreds of thousands more within its borders.
The conflict is expected to be high on the agenda at Friday’s summit.
A senior Saudi diplomat said last week that the army chief, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, one of the two generals in the center, had been invited to represent Sudan, but it was unclear who would attend.
Representatives of Burhan and his adversary, paramilitary leader Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, have been in Jeddah for more than a week for talks facilitated by Saudi Arabia and the United States.
On Thursday, the two sides signed an agreement pledging to uphold humanitarian principles, but have yet to agree on the terms of a possible truce.