The United Arab Emirates has invited Bashar al-Assad to attend the COP 28 climate summit in Dubai, the latest move by countries in the region to rehabilitate the Syrian president but one that is likely to cause discomfort for western leaders and climate advocates.
Syria, which was readmitted to the Arab League this month, received the invite from a UAE representative at its embassy in Damascus on Monday, according to the Syrian state news agency.
The invitation to the gathering later this year will cause disquiet in those countries that have expressed disdain for the pace of reconciliation with the Syrian leader, whose regime was accused of war crimes during the country’s devastating civil war.
It would be his first global summit since before the outbreak of the war in 2011, and it holds the potential for awkward encounters with western leaders who have sanctioned his regime and called for him to be removed.
The holding of the UN climate summit in the UAE has been contentious from the outset, after the appointment of the head of the state-owned oil company, Sultan Al Jaber, as president of COP28, and the inclusion of fossil fuel industry leaders as formal participants.
“COP28 is committed to an inclusive COP process that produces transformational solutions,” said a COP 28 spokesperson. “This can only happen if we have everyone in the room.” The meeting would be a “milestone opportunity” to drive progress towards keeping the goals and ambitions of the Paris climate deal alive, the spokesperson added.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia have been leading Arab efforts to rehabilitate the Syrian regime, which has been able to reassert its control over most of Syria after receiving military backing from Iran and Russia during the civil war.
Although Syria’s readmittance to the Arab League is a largely symbolic move, analysts see it as a boost to Assad, whom they believe is seeking rehabilitation on the global stage without having to make significant concessions.
Diplomats said some states — including Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan and Egypt — had previously opposed Syria rejoining the league. Those in opposition believe Assad has done little to rehabilitate himself since the civil war that began when he brutally crushed anti-government protests during the Arab spring uprisings of 2011.
Regional diplomats said more concrete steps were required before most Arab states could support normalising relations with Syria.
Those opposed to Syria’s readmission to the Arab League had wanted the re-engagement to be carried out through a step-by-step process, hoping they could secure commitments from Assad on humanitarian issues, refugees and curbing the illegal trade in narcotics that have become an economic lifeline for Damascus.
While Turkey and some Gulf countries sought the overthrow of Assad during the initial stages of the civil war, he was able to regain control of most of the country by 2016 with the support of Moscow and Tehran.
The rise of Islamist extremist groups in the fight against the regime also raised concerns among some Gulf monarchies, including the UAE, which are opposed to the regional threat posed by political Islam.
The remnants of the opposition still control north-western pockets of the devastated nation, while US-backed Kurdish militias control the north-east.
The regime remains under western sanctions and millions of Syrians have been internally displaced or sought refuge in foreign countries. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in the civil war, during which the regime bombed and tortured civilians.