Syrian factions’ reactions to Assad’s participation in the Arab Summit
Over the course of more than 12 years of armed conflict between factions and Islamist groups in Syria that began in the name of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, none of these factions have succeeded in achieving their first goal, which is the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who began a series of moves at the beginning of this year at the Arab and international level to confirm his presence, as he is still a representative of the Syrian people in those forums, and his recent participation in the Arab Summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, sparked a state of controversy between the various armed factions.
With the beginning of 2023, Assad began a series of foreign tours that included Russia, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, which reached an unprecedented climax in March. Assad visited Russia on March 14 officially, unlike previous visits that were carried out secretly and not announced until after the end of the visit. It also included some protocol procedures that did not happen before, indicating that there is a kind of agreement in the region to allow Assad to expand his movements in a more flexible manner.
Assad’s visit to Russia was preceded by another visit to the Sultanate of Oman on March 1 within the framework of a set of settlements, including efforts to extend the deal to open the Turkish crossings with Syria in return for extending the freeze of US sanctions on Damascus. During the visit, Assad was received by Omani Sultan Haitham bin Tariq, and the parties concluded an official session of talks, the first since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis in 2011.
After the two visits, another visit was made to the United Arab Emirates on March 19, followed by another official visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. These visits expressed matters to pave the way for a new shift in dealing with Assad and his regime.
Despite those official and semi-official visits and movements that confirm this transformation, Assad's participation in the Arab Summit in Jeddah on May 19 came as a shock to many armed factions in Syria, which did not expect the matter to reach this extent. The reactions of the factions varied, especially in light of the talk about Syria's return to the Arab League after its membership was suspended for more than 12 years, so that Assad would return as the official representative of the Syrian people, which is a shock to many of these factions.
These measures are considered an official declaration of the failure of the Syrian revolution, which did not achieve its primary goal of overthrowing Assad and his regime. Some also considered it a victory for Assad over the revolution. Among those angry factions is the Ahrar al-Sham movement.
Ahrar al-Sham issued a statement on May 19 against the backdrop of Assad's participation in the Arab Summit, in which it expressed its dissatisfaction with this event, noting that it did not consult any of the Arab countries or others in starting the revolution against the Assad regime. The statement confirmed that the enmity of the Syrian people towards Iran, Russia and the Assad regime are deeply rooted, and the revolution remains and continues, burning in the hearts of the people.
Demonstrations denouncing Assad’s participation in the Arab Summit took place in areas outside the control of the Assad regime, especially in the northwest of the country. The slogans such as “the people want to overthrow the regime” have returned in the city of Azaz, which is controlled by pro-Turkish factions, while demonstrations also erupted in Al-Bab and Afrin, with demonstrators carrying banners condemning Assad's participation in the summit.
While no statement was issued by the Nusra Front, led by Abu Mohammad al-Julani, who appeared to be more flexible with the event in line with the successive transformations of his group, which is trying to reassure the world that it has become a political faction that can compete for power at a later time.
Dr. Mohamed Abdel Razek, a researcher specializing in Asian affairs, said that the rejectionist reactions of the Syrian factions are expected and not surprising, as many of them consider that their efforts over the past years were wasted and that their dreams since the outbreak of the revolution have evaporated.
Abdel Razek confirmed in a special statement to the Reference that the international changes were reflected in the behavior of these factions inside Syria, which led to a significant weakening of their activity during the recent period and therefore cannot make us expect violent reactions from them in the coming period, despite their great disappointment. He pointed out that Assad's participation in the Jeddah summit does not mean Syria's official return to it, but rather it is merely a symbolic expression of a desire to end the dark era in Syria's history and start a new page that needs a clear roadmap.