Syrian President Bashar al-Assad arrived in Saudi Arabia Thursday to join an Arab League summit for the first time in more than a decade of war.

The visit marks Assad’s official return to the Arab fold after the body suspended Damascus in November 2011 over its bloody crackdown on protests, triggering a conflict that has killed more than 500,000 people and displaced millions.

Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries either severed or downgraded ties with Assad at the time, with Riyadh openly championing his ouster during the conflict.

But earlier this month, the pan-Arab body welcomed Damascus back, with host Saudi Arabia inviting Assad to Friday’s summit despite objections from other Arab countries.

Syrian pro-government newspaper al-Watan said Assad will likely meet “a number of leaders in bilateral meetings” Thursday evening and Friday morning.

The last Arab League summit Assad attended was in 2010 in Libya.

Regional capitals had gradually been warming to Assad as he has held on to power and clawed back lost territory with crucial support from Iran and Russia.

In 2018, the United Arab Emirates re-established ties with Syria and has been leading the charge to reintegrate Damascus into the Arab fold.

Arab outreach to Assad picked up pace after a deadly earthquake struck Syria and Turkey on February 6.

A decision in March by Saudi Arabia and Damascus backer Iran to resume ties has also shifted the Middle Eastern political landscape.

Less than two weeks later, Saudi Arabia announced it had begun talks on resuming consular services with Iran ally Syria.

Officials at several recent meetings have said Arab leadership is needed to find a settlement to the conflict.

The fate of millions of Syrian refugees, many of them living in neighbouring Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, are among some states’ main concerns.

Several Arab countries are also seeking increased security cooperation with Syria, which critics say has turned into a narco-state with a $10 billion captagon industry, mostly trafficked to the Gulf.

Assad is hoping full normalisation of ties with wealthy Gulf monarchies and other Arab states will help finance reconstruction.

Following a preparatory meeting in Jeddah on Wednesday, Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said “reconstruction will facilitate (refugee) returns, and we welcome any Arab role in this field.”

While Syria’s front lines have mostly quietened, large parts of the north remain outside government control, and no political solution to the conflict is in sight.

Roger Barake, with AFP