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Factbox-Then and now: How Arab states changed course on Syria

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad arrives in Jeddah, to attend the Arab League summit

(Reuters) - President Bashar al-Assad's attendance at an Arab Summit in Saudi Arabia on Friday is the result of big policy shifts by Arab states that once backed his opponents in Syria's civil war.

Here is an overview of the policies of major Arab players towards Syria and Assad, and how they have changed:

SAUDI ARABIA

Saudi Arabia came out strongly against Assad early in the conflict, reflecting concern about the regional influence of his ally, Shi'ite Iran.

Riyadh provided the mainly Sunni rebels with arms, money and political support as the rebellion spread.

The support was a point of rivalry with another Gulf Arab state, Qatar, which backed Islamist groups espousing ideologies viewed with suspicion by Riyadh. Saudi Arabia sought to back other groups. It also worked with the United States in a programme to support rebels deemed moderate by Washington.

But Saudi officials were also critical of U.S. policy on Syria: in 2013, then intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan told European diplomats that the United States had failed to act effectively against Assad.

In 2014, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said there could be no role in a transition for Assad and those whose hands were "stained in blood", and that all foreign fighters, including Hezbollah, must withdraw from Syria.

In 2016, former foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir said Assad would not be ruling Syria in the future and Russia's military intervention would not help him stay in power.

As some Arab states changed course on Assad, notably the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia showed no sign of bringing him in from the cold.

But this changed in recent months, notably after Riyadh and Tehran agreed to reestablish ties in a deal brokered by China.

Iranian influence in Syria remains a source of concern for Riyadh. Like other Arab states, Saudi Arabia is also expecting Assad to curb the trade in narcotics smuggled out of Syria.

Assad met Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan in Damascus last month. Saudi state media said they discussed steps needed for a political solution to the war that would preserve its Arab identity and return it to "its Arab surroundings".

QATAR

Doha's strong backing for the Syrian opposition echoed its support for the Arab Spring revolts that swept the Middle East in 2011, including in Egypt where it backed the Muslim Brotherhood.

In 2013, at an Arab summit in Doha, Syrian opposition leaders took Syria's seat after Qatar's emir asks his fellow Arab leaders to invite them to represent the country.

Much of Qatar's support went to rebels who were Islamist in ideology and seen as close to the Muslim Brotherhood. Its allies fretted that weapons were falling into the hands of extremists.

Qatar always denied it backed militant groups with al Qaeda ties. Qatari mediation helped secure the release of numerous hostages held in Syria by the Nusra Front, which was for years al Qaeda's official affiliate in the conflict. Qatar also took part in U.S.-backed efforts to support rebels deemed moderate.

In 2018, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani said the region could not tolerate “a war criminal” like Assad.

Qatar has said that the original basis for Syria's suspension from in the Arab League still stands and has reiterated Doha's stance against normalisation with Syria unless there is a political solution.

But it withdrew its opposition to Saudi Arabia's initiative to readmit Syria to the pan-Arab body, saying it would not stand in the way of Arab consensus.

UAE

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) once backed some anti-Assad insurgents but its role was less prominent than that of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and mainly centred on ensuring that Islamist forces did not dominate the insurgency.

Abu Dhabi led the way in bringing Assad back into the Arab fold after he had driven back insurgents across most of Syria, aided by Russia and Iran. Its motives for re-engagement, which prompted U.S. objections, included trying to counter the influence of non-Arab Iran and Turkey in Syria.

A visit to Damascus by the UAE's foreign minister in late 2021 was followed the next year by a trip to the UAE for Assad, his first to an Arab state since the war began. Assad visited again in March, accompanied by his wife Asma al-Assad.

The UAE has invited Assad to the COP28 climate summit it is hosting at the end of the year.

JORDAN

Jordan, Syria's neighbour to the south, also backed rebels fighting Assad, but its policy was shaped largely by concerns for the security of its border and preventing southern Syria from becoming a haven for hardline Islamist militants.

They hosted a military operations rooms under the supervision of Western powers, which lent limited support to rebels espousing a nationalist rather than Islamist agenda.

This helped these rebel groups to control much of the south until 2018, when Russian-backed government forces drove them out of the region. Jordan facilitated talks between rebel factions and Moscow over a deal that would return state rule to the area.

Jordan's King Abdullah said at the start of the conflict said he would step down were he in Assad's position, after mass protests against his rule. But Jordan never officially severed ties with Syria.

(Compiled by Tom Perry, Suleiman al-Khalidi and Michael Georgy; Editing by Alex Richardson)