Saudi Arabia to end Syria’s regional isolation with invitation for Assad to attend summit

Assad’s presence at summit will revoke Syria’s suspension after crackdown on 2011 Arab Spring protests

US assistant secretary of state for regional affairs Barbara Leaf accepted that Washington’s allies 'want to try engagement' with Syria's Bashar al-Assad. Photograph: Vladimir Gerdo/Getty Images

Saudi Arabia is set to end Syria’s regional isolation by inviting president Bashar al-Assad to the Arab League summit hosted by the kingdom on May 19th, according to Reuters.

Saudi minister for foreign affairs Faisal bin Farhan is expected in Damascus in the coming weeks to deliver the invitation. Last month, Saudi Arabia and Syria agreed to reopen embassies at consular level as a first step in the restoration of full diplomatic ties.

Mr Assad’s presence at the summit will revoke Syria’s league suspension following the Syrian government’s crackdown on 2011 Arab Spring protests which precipitated civil and proxy warfare and drew in regional and international actors. At least 350,000 combatants and civilians have died and half of Syria’s 21 million people have been driven into exile or displaced within the ravaged and sanctioned country.

On Saturday, Syria’s minister for foreign affairs Faisal Mekdad paid his country’s first high-level visit to Cairo in a decade. He met his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shukri who called for a “comprehensive political settlement to the Syrian crisis”. Unlike the half a dozen other Arab countries which shut their embassies in Damascus between 2011-2012, Egypt downgraded its representation but kept its embassy open.


Egypt has played a role in the campaign to return Syria to the Arab fold. The campaign was launched by the United Arab Emirates after it reopened its embassy in 2018. Emirati president Mohammed bin Zayed announced last month that “the time has come” for Syrian regional reintegration. This will receive a significant boost after Ramadan with a visit to Damascus by Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.

In exchange for normalisation, the Arab states demand that Syria impose controls on its borders and stamp out the production and smuggling of Captagon, a cheap methamphetamine which has become a scourge in the Gulf states.

Normalisation gathered pace following the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria in February after which Arab governments provided humanitarian supplies to Syria. It picked up more momentum following the China-brokered agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran in March to restore relations, which were cut in 2016 when Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran to protest against the Saudi execution of dissident Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

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Syria’s alliance with Iran ceased to be an obstacle to reconciliation once the Saudis had decided to restore ties with Tehran. Re-engaging with Syria and Iran are central to the Arab effort to reduce reliance on the US, pivot east and cultivate relations with China and Russia.

While opposing Arab normalisation with Syria, the Biden administration appears to have accepted that the Arabs will reopen relations. On Sunday, US assistant secretary of state for regional affairs Barbara Leaf accepted that Washington’s allies “want to try engagement” with Mr Assad. “Our approach on that score is make sure to get something in return,” Ms Leaf said.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times