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Syria's Assad shakes hands, kisses cheeks with onetime foes at Arab League summit

Saudi Arabia hosts the Arab League summit in Jeddah

By Maya Gebeily

(Reuters) - Every handshake would count, and Syria's President Bashar al-Assad had plenty of them at Friday's Arab League Summit - along with hugs and kisses - from his onetime foes in the region.

As he strolled into the summit venue in the Saudi city of Jeddah on Friday afternoon, a beaming Assad extended his arms to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who grabbed them both and kissed Assad once on each cheek.

It was a symbolic moment, sealing Assad's reintegration into the Arab fold after being suspended from the League and isolated by most of the region for over a decade over his crackdown on protests against him.

Saudi Arabia came out strongly against Assad soon after Syria's crisis broke out in 2011 but has more recently changed tack along with many Arab countries represented at the summit - despite objections by the West and many Syrians who still see him as a war criminal.

As Assad lined up for the League's family photograph, he shook hands with his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The two leaders smiled, gestured with their hands and tilted their heads as they chatted.

Assad then turned briefly to speak to Tunisian President Kais al-Saeid. Assad held bilateral talks with Saeid and the UAE's Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed on Friday - and is expected to have a sit-down with bin Salman.

One after the other, Arab leaders welcomed Syria's return to the Arab league and during his own address, Assad repeatedly said that Syria belonged to the Arab world.

But one key leader did not hear him speak: Qatar's Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, who in 2018 called the Syrian president a war criminal.

Al-Thani left Jeddah after leading his country's delegation, according to a statement by Qatar's Emiri Diwan distributed to media as Assad was speaking, and did not make his own address.

Syria's state news agency had reported that the Emir and Assad shook hands and spoke briefly on the sidelines before the summit began - but there was no statement on Qatari media.

An Arab official told Reuters that the Emir did not hold any bilateral meetings and left the summit before Assad spoke.

(Reporting by Maya Gebeily; Edited by Tom Perry, William Maclean)