Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has been invited to the Cop28 climate summit by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which says it wants to “have everyone in the room” in Dubai.
The move is likely to cause discomfort among Western leaders who are strongly opposed to restoring diplomatic relations with the Syrian regime.
A US government official told Climate Home News it does not believe Assad should be welcomed into international forums such as the Leaders’ Summit at COP 28.
The UAE’s invitation is the latest sign of an attempt by some Arab powers to rehabilitate the Syrian president who has been accused of war crimes and human rights violations.
Syria was readmitted this month to the Arab League, a regional organisation of 22 countries, following a 12-year exclusion.
“PR gift” to Assad
Kristyan Benedict from Amnesty International said the UAE’s invite was not remotely about tackling the climate crisis.
“It’s part of an insidious normalisation process designed to maintain impunity for leaders across the region,” he said. “Millions of people who have fled Syria and had relatives detained, tortured and murdered, will be horrified by this PR gift to Assad.”
استقبل فخامة الدكتور بشار الأسد رئيس الجمهورية العربية السورية السيد عبدالحكيم النعيمي القائم بأعمال سفارة دولة الإمارات في دمشق الذي قام بتسليم فخامته دعوة موجهة من صاحب السمو الشيخ محمد بن زايد آل نهيان، رئيس الدولة "حفظه الله"، لحضور مؤتمر الأطراف للمناخ (COP28). pic.twitter.com/CCiWCSzBMO
— UAE Embassy DAMASCUS (@DamascusUae) May 14, 2023
The Cop28 team said it was committed to an inclusive process that produces transformational solutions. “This can only happen if we have everyone in the room.”
Syria is a party to the UNFCCC and a signatory of the Paris Agreement. A Syrian delegation attended Cop27 at Sharm-el-Sheik last year, but that did not include Assad.
War crimes accusations
If confirmed, Assad’s presence at this year’s climate summit could lead to uncomfortable encounters with leaders of nations that have imposed severe sanctions against the Syrian regime.
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More than 300,000 people have been killed and millions more displaced in the country’s brutal civil war. The Syrian regime, led by Assad, has been accused of war crimes, including the use of chemical weapons on civilians.
A UN fact-finding mission found “widespread and systematic human rights violations by Syrian security and military forces”, including murder, enforced disappearances, torture and deprivation of liberty.
Joseph Daher, a Syria expert at the European University Institute, said the UAE has been a leading force behind the efforts to normalise ties with the Syrian regime.
The UAE reopened its embassy in the Syrian capital Damascus in 2018, a highly significant move at the time that inspired other countries to do the same.
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Most Western nations have not seen Assad’s attempted rehabilitation in a good light.
The US and the UK criticised the Arab League’s decision to readmit Syria.“Our position is clear: We are not going to be in the business of normalising relations with Assad and with that regime,” said US secretary of state Antony Blinken in a joint press conference last week.
The EU remains opposed to normaliing the Syrian regime until it engages meaningfully in a political solution to the conflict.
Daher said that, if Assad goes to Dubai, Western leaders will not want to be seen anywhere close to him in the room. “They will be careful not to show any form of legitimacy.”
The presence of authoritarian leaders has caused discomfort at previous climate summits.
At Cop27 last year, US Special Envoy John Kerry shook hands with Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro, who the US does not recognise as the country’s legitimate leader.
A US official later told the press that Kerry had been caught by surprise by Maduro.
The article has been updated to include a comment from a US government official received after publication