Arab League summit: who is Syria president Bashar al-Assad - why was he missing from conference for so long?

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Assad was reportedly welcomed back to the Arab League with open arms, although some member states are seemingly upset by the development

Arab leaders meeting for an annual summit in Saudi Arabia have been joined by Syrian President Bashar Assad for the first time in more than a decade - after Syria was expelled from the group for gunning down pro-democracy protesters.

The Arab League summit is expected to focus on the conflict in Sudan, which has recently ramped up, with an estimated 600 people dead so far. Although leaders have also received a surprise visit from Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelensky, who accused some Arab countries of "turning a blind eye" to Russia's invasion.

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Assad was reportedly welcomed back with open arms, although some member states have seemingly been perturbed by Syria being allowed to return without any changes to its regime's actions, with Qatari emir reportedly walking out ahead of Assad's speech.

But who is Syria's president, and why has he been allowed t return to the summit?

Who is Syrian president Bashar al-Assad?

Bashar al-Assad has been Syria's president since 2000. He succeeded his father, Ḥafiz al-Assad, who had been president since 1971, when he overthrew the standing government in a coup.

Assad's older brother, Basel, died in a car crash in 1994 - at which point he was studying medicine in London, CNN reports. He was soon called back to Syria. When his father died of a heart attack after 29 years in office, the minimum age requirement for presidency was quickly reduced from 40 to 34 - Assad's age at the time. He ran unopposed, and was elected president.

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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been missing from the summit for more than a decade (Photo: JOSEPH EID/AFP via Getty Images)Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been missing from the summit for more than a decade (Photo: JOSEPH EID/AFP via Getty Images)
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been missing from the summit for more than a decade (Photo: JOSEPH EID/AFP via Getty Images) | AFP via Getty Images

The wider al-Assad family have held many important positions in Syria's government and business community, leading to widespread concern about corruption, and a lack of democracy in the country.

Assad is married to British-born Asma al-Assad, and the couple have three children.

Why has he not attended the Arab League summit in nearly a decade?

Twelve years ago, Syria was kicked out of the Arab League. This was due to Assad's violent suppression of pro-democracy protesters, in the wake of unrest triggered by the Arab Spring protests.

At an emergency meeting of its 22 member states in Egypt, the league decided to exclude Syria until it implemented the terms of an earlier agreed peace deal to stop the violence, The Guardian reported at the time.

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The league also agreed to impose economic and political sanctions on Syria, and asked members to withdraw their ambassadors from the capital, Damascus.

A bloody civil war has been raging in Syria since 2012, when the protests turned into an armed rebellion - with opposition forces initially made up mostly of soldiers who had left the Syrian army, and civilian volunteers.

Over the years, various domestic and foreign have entered the fight, muddying the makeup of the conflict. While most of the loose alliance of rebel factions wants to bring down Assad’s government in favour of a much freer Syria, some are known terrorist cells, including al-Nusra Front (or “al-Qaeda in Syria”) and Islamic State, both of which have carried out attacks on Western countries.

Russia is one of the major international government’s supporting Assad's regime, and has provided both political and logistical support by providing military equipment, training and troops. The US, Britain and France, have all provided political, logistical and military support to the Syrian rebel coalition.

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The civil war is ongoing, and the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect estimates at least 306,000 civilians have been killed - as well as 13 million Syrians left displaced, and 6.7 million refugees forced to flee Syria. The UK-based Syrian Network for Human Rights estimates the government and its foreign allies were responsible for 91% of civilian casualties.

Why has he returned?

International media report Assad was welcomed back with open arms on Friday, even sharing a hug with Saudi Arabia's crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Assad's return to the Arab fold was part of a wider trend in the Middle East, where long-time adversaries have been taking steps to mend their relationships, Reuters reports. Salman has been fiercely pursuing regional diplomacy, and in recent months, Saudi Arabia has restored diplomatic ties with Iran.

It is also ending the kingdom’s years-long war against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen, and has led the push for Syria’s return to the Arab League. In his speech, Assad told a summit of the bloc that he hopes his return marks a new phase of peace and prosperity in the region, The Guardian said.

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Not all in the league have welcomed him back. The Guardian reports Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, walked out of the summit just before the Syrian president spoke

The Qatari emir has previously said said the region could not tolerate "a war criminal" like Assad, and Qatar hosted an Arab League summit a decade ago where it invited the Syrian opposition to sit in Assad's seat.

Many Western countries also still view Assad as a pariah - particularly over his forces’ aerial bombardment and gas attacks against civilians during the 12-year civil war. Some have criticised his return to the Arab fold, and vowed to maintain severe sanctions against his regime.

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