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Leaders from across the Middle East are meeting in Saudi Arabia

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Leaders from across the Arab world are meeting in Saudi Arabia, and someone who hasn't been in the room for more than a decade is making a reappearance. Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is officially ending years of isolation by the region's power over a civil war that has killed about half a million people. Washington has condemned the kingdom's normalization of ties with Assad. The invitation is seen as another sign of the strained relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Also, there's a surprise visitor today. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is in Jeddah, where the summit is taking place. And that's also where NPR's Aya Batrawy is right now, and she joins me now. Good morning.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

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FADEL: So, Aya, we'll get to Zelenskyy's surprise visit in a moment. But I want to start with Bashar al-Assad's reappearance at the summit - quite significant. He was something of a pariah in the region over his crackdown on the opposition to his rule, the torture in prisons, the hundreds of thousands who've been killed in the Civil War. And now he's just welcomed back.

BATRAWY: Yeah. I mean, ultimately, yes, there were important countries like Egypt and the United Arab Emirates that had already been building ties with Syria for years. But the big shift really happened after February's earthquakes that hit Turkey and parts of Syria. It gave Saudi Arabia the opening that it was looking for to reengage with Syria at first for humanitarian purposes. But not everyone in the region agrees with this embrace of Assad. The image of Assad standing with leaders today for that - their group photo, shaking hands, is jarring to also many Syrians as well. I spoke with Mohammed Alaa Ghanem. He's the policy chief at the Syrian American Council, an opposition group that's calling for democracy in Syria. He says Arab states are legitimizing Assad without extracting real concessions first.

MOHAMMED ALAA GHANEM: Has Assad changed anything? Has Assad released political prisoners, especially women and children? Assad has made absolutely no changes, no concessions that would merit readmitting him. So sadly, normalizing ties with him can only be seen as capitulation.

FADEL: So this war started in protests against Assad's rule. They were violently repressed. That led to a civil war. Saudi Arabia backed the rebels trying to topple Assad. So does the Saudi invitation to Assad mean somehow that Assad has officially won?

BATRAWY: Well, he oversees an economy that's in tatters. U.S. sanctions are also an obstacle to how far countries can go in normalizing with him. And there are still parts of the country that are not under his control. But Russia and Iran rushed to his aid, and he wasn't toppled in the end. And now Syria's civil war is at a stalemate. Millions of Syrian refugees are looking to go back home, but they need - the country needs to be rebuilt, and Arab states want a piece of that. And they're hoping Syria can reorient itself back into the Arab fold and sort of move away from Iran, which still has a big footprint there.

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FADEL: OK, so we obviously do need to discuss this visit from Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. What do you make of his appearance this morning?

BATRAWY: I mean, it is an unusual one 'cause he's from Ukraine and this is a summit of Arab leaders. But for Zelenskyy, this is a chance to lay out his country's demands, that Russia returns all Ukrainian territory it has annexed since 2014. And he's making that pitch to Arab states that have close ties with Russia, both politically and economically. Saudi Arabia has an oil pact with Russia that's helped Russia's economy by keeping oil prices higher. And there have been Arab countries that have helped Russians evade sanctions by keeping business open. So - but for Saudi Arabia, for the crown prince, this is a chance to flex his diplomatic muscles and show that he's not going to be pressured by the U.S. or by Russia to pick sides.

FADEL: NPR's Aya Batrawy in Jeddah, thank you so much.

BATRAWY: Thanks, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Aya Batrawy
Aya Batrawy is an NPR International Correspondent. She leads NPR's Gulf bureau in Dubai.