The excitement surrounding Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s presence was palpable at the Arab League Summit in Jeddah earlier this month. Despite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s surprise appearance and Sudan-related concerns hovering in the background, Assad stole the limelight, understandably so. It marked his return, after 11 years, to this multilateral Arab gathering following unspeakable turmoil and devastation in his country.

The Jeddah Summit looked like a collective effort to bury the past and pursue a new and hopefully bright future. The leadership seemed willing to heal the wounds of a brutal war that overwhelmed Syria and massively impacted the rest of its neighbourhood. Even though time will tell whether the Summit was the moment that turned things around, there is no denying the credit that any sincere effort toward peace should get. So, full marks to the decision-makers on that count.

Throughout human history, a dramatic event has often halted years of bloodshed. Call it wisdom overdrive, the culmination of sustained reconciliation efforts, or battle fatigue; few can foretell what leads to reconciliation. Nevertheless, it is the outcome that matters.

Bringing Syria back to the Arab fold does not automatically guarantee an end to conflicts in the Middle East. However, the Jeddah Summit certainly furthered a sense of belief – amid mushrooming voices of reconciliation across the region – in what could be collectively accomplished to ensure peace and progress.

Cautious optimism

Two critical statements put things in perspective. The first statement came from President Assad. “Syria will remain the beating heart of the Arab world and will not give up its principles despite the intensifying pressure and diversifying plots not only targeting Syria, but all Arabs,” he is quoted to have said during the Summit.

Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit chose to remain more realistic. “A positive return of Syria rests on a number of factors,” he reportedly said. We understand what those “factors” could be, and it is up to the stakeholders to maintain the peace momentum.

However, cautious optimism could be one way to describe the mood of the Summit. There will always be a school of thought that puts justice before reconciliation. They would argue that letting Assad go scot-free for all that happened in Syria would mean injustice to the millions who suffered in the conflict. There is indeed merit in that argument.

However, sceptics must also understand that bringing him back into the Arab fold is, at best, the beginning of a process to restore order, revive, and rehabilitate Syria, which is better than a perpetual state of acrimony wherein neither justice nor reconciliation is ensured.

The rapprochement points towards the realisation that the conflict in Syria was an Arab problem and had to be resolved at that level. Whether this is the resolution the region needed is open to interpretation, but what happened in Jeddah can be described as “well begun is half done.”

Challenges and opportunities

As the war-torn country craves investment, support, and opportunities amid its return to the Arab fold, it is time for a trade-to-the-fore strategy to expedite progress in Syria. Investing and assimilating is the way to heal the wounds of a brutal conflict and make a new beginning that helps the millions of victims of war and their families living and working across the region.

An equitable ecosystem to ensure the return of its millions of refugees is equally essential. Syria’s rehabilitation drive must prioritise relief to the recent earthquake victims. As children in quake-hit areas learn in buses turned into classrooms, and babies are being abandoned because their parents do not have the resources to give them decent lives, our hearts, minds, and purses, of course, should go to usher in hope among the most deprived.

Such an approach will eventually ensure the Syrians living and working elsewhere in the region find opportunities back home. There is also the arduous task of returning millions of Syrian refugees and internally-displaced people living in camps to return and reclaim their homes. Syria’s return to the Arab fold is particularly significant for the country’s neighbourhood, especially Lebanon and Jordan.

The challenges craving attention include the demarcation of maritime borders to border security and control, especially to control drug smuggling, which has become a menace in recent years. Syria’s presence at events such as COP-28 would be critical for the country and the region’s struggle against climate change.

I recall talking to a former colleague from Syria who had lost family members during the conflict’s early days. As I prepared to proceed on vacation and inadvertently asked about his plans, he said something that jolted me badly. “I do not have a country to go back to.” We must invest in and assimilate Syria because we all deserve to return home.

Ehtesham Shahid is an editor and researcher based in the UAE.

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