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Qatar’s amir leaves Arab League summit before Assad’s first speech since suspension over war crimes

The Syrian regime has killed more than 600,000 people as refugees fear returning to torture and forced disappearances.

Qatar’s Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani did not attend the speech of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad at the Arab League on Friday, his first in more than a decade after the bloc reinstated Syria’s membership.

Dubbed as the “summit of renewal and change”, the high-level meeting took place in Jeddah with the attendance of Arab leaders and diplomats. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also made a surprise presence at the summit.

سمو الأمير المفدى يغادر مدينة جدة بالمملكة العربية السعودية الشقيقة، بعد ترؤسه وفد دولة قطر في القمة العربية الـ32.

— الديوان الأميري (@AmiriDiwan) May 19, 2023

“Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani left the city of Jeddah in the sisterly Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, after heading the country’s delegation participating in the 32nd regular session of the Arab League Council at the summit level,” the Amiri Diwan said.

The meeting in Jeddah is the first to ever take place with Syria’s presence after the Arab League froze its membership in 2011 due to Assad’s violent crackdown on peaceful pro-freedom protests. 

The Syrian dictator, whose war crimes have been exposed by activists, rights groups and survivors of torture, was welcomed with open arms by countries which had once boycotted him, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Qatar has maintained its unwavering stance against the Syrian regime while repeatedly stressing that the reasons behind the Arab League’s previous decision remain valid.

While the Amiri Diwan statement was released during the summit, there was no mention of the exact time he left, as many social media users have speculated on the correlation with attending Assad’s speech.

Qatar closed its embassy in Syria in 2011 and was the first to establish an embassy for the Syrian opposition in its capital Doha.

On Wednesday, days ahead of the summit, Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani reiterated his country’s stance vis-a-vis normalising with the Syrian regime.

“We do not want to deviate from the Arab consensus regarding Syria’s return to the Arab League provided each country maintains its own decision on normalising relations with Assad,” the Qatari official said, speaking alongside Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.

Since 2018, the Assad regime has moved to rehabilitate itself back into the Arab League.

Countries such as Jordan and Tunisia began resuming their economic relations with the regime, opening up their airspaces and recommencing trade. 

By 2021, Jordan had normalised with the Assad regime restoring full diplomatic ties, followed by the United Arab Emirates, Tunisia and Oman.

Host of the latest Arab League summit, Saudi Arabia, was the latest to rekindle its ties with Syria despite its previous stance against Assad. 

This followed the bloc’s announcement to bring back Assad to the Arab League last week after meetings that took place in Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

On 7 May, just hours after the Arab League’s decision, Qatar stressed that its stance will remain unchanged.

In a statement to Doha’s state news agency at the time, Qatar’s foreign ministry spokesperson Dr. Majed Al Ansari stated that while Doha “always seeks to support achieving Arab consensus and will not be an obstacle”, its unilateral decision on the matter is “linked primarily to progress in the political solution that fulfils the aspirations of the Syrian people.”

In September last year, Sheikh Tamim told French outlet Le Point that the reasons that led to the suspension of Syria’s Arab League membership back in 2011 still remain as core issues more than a decade later.

“Why do we accept that a leader massacres his people and expels millions of refugees from his country? As human beings, is this acceptable? What’s more, when we know that these refugees are going to come to us and that this will create problems?” the Qatari leader said at the time, in his first press interview in years.

The Syrian regime plunged the country into more than a decade of war while creating the world’s biggest refugee crisis.

In addition to the shelling of civilians, the Assad regime has carried out horrifying methods of torture, some of which were exposed  in 2014 through the Caesar photographs.

Since 2011, the Syrian regime has killed more than 600,000 people.