April 2, 2023 | Flash Brief

Assad Will Return to Arab League Summit, Courtesy of Saudi Invite

April 2, 2023 | Flash Brief

Assad Will Return to Arab League Summit, Courtesy of Saudi Invite

Latest Developments

Saudi Arabia, which will host the annual Arab League summit next month, plans to invite Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to attend the gathering in Riyadh. The pending invitation marks a major reversal in Saudi policy and a milestone for Assad as he seeks diplomatic rehabilitation despite his ongoing atrocities. According to Reuters, which first reported the news, Prince Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, will travel to Damascus in the coming weeks to personally deliver the invitation.

The Arab League suspended Syria in 2011 and imposed sanctions on the country as a result of the Assad regime’s violent suppression of protests. Saudi Arabia was one of several countries that provided weapons and funding to Assad’s opponents in the civil war. The Biden administration recently signaled its acceptance of normalization with Assad. “Our basic message has been if you’re going to engage with the regime, get something for that,” explained Barbara Leaf, the assistant secretary of state for Middle Eastern affairs, last month.

Expert Analysis

“This is a victory for Russia and Iran, not just Assad. Moscow and Tehran are determined to show Assad will pay no price for his crimes, nor will anyone hold them accountable for participating in the atrocities. The Saudi position is deeply regrettable and affirms their lack of concern for human rights, but the far greater disappointment is that the Biden administration has been promoting normalization despite paying lip service to the cause of accountability for the Assad regime.” David Adesnik, FDD Senior Fellow and Director of Research

“Normalizing Assad’s terror is not merely morally repugnant but will not serve the safety and security interests of those who welcome the war criminal into the Arab League. The administration should double down on enforcement of existing U.S. sanctions on the Assad regime and work with the EU and others to do the same. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have already begun to send a strong message to the administration and to those who would look the other way in the face of Assad’s war crimes that impunity will not be tolerated.” Toby Dershowitz, FDD Senior Vice President for Government Relations and Strategy

Saudi Moves Follow UAE, Oman

For a decade, the only foreign capitals Assad visited were Moscow and Tehran. Then, last year, he paid a surprise visit to Abu Dhabi, reflecting the Emirati government’s quiet multi-year push for normalization. This year, Oman also welcomed Assad, after becoming the first Gulf Arab state to return its ambassador to Damascus in 2020. The Saudi invitation to Assad follows reports that the two states are in the process of restoring diplomatic relations. Shortly after that news broke, Damascus and Riyadh affirmed they were discussing the restoration of consular services.

In Congress, a Bipartisan Push for Biden to Stand Up for Human Rights

For more than a year, a bipartisan coalition in Congress has been warning President Biden that tolerating or promoting Assad’s normalization would damage American interests. On March 23, the top Democrats and Republicans on the foreign affairs committees in both the House and Senate objected to “the disappointingly slow pace of sanctions under the Caesar Act,” a human rights law that passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in late 2019. A year earlier, the same top lawmakers warned Biden to avoid “tacit approval of formal diplomatic engagement with the Syrian regime.”

Related Analysis

Under Pressure From Congress, Administration Sanctions Syrian Narco-Traffickers,” FDD Policy Brief

Lawmakers, Former Top Officials, Offer Bipartisan Rebuke of Biden Syria Policy,” FDD Flash Brief

A Strategy to End the Systematic Theft of Humanitarian Aid in Syria,” by David Adesnik


Arab Politics Iran Iran Global Threat Network Syria