(CNSNews.com) – A surprise visit to Damascus by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir made headlines this week because both he and his host are accused of war crimes. The visit may mark a grudging acknowledgment by Arab states that it’s time to resume business with Bashar al-Assad.
Seven years and one month after the 21 other members of the Arab League suspended the Assad regime, Bashir became the first Arab leader to visit the Syrian capital, where he huddled with Assad for closed-doors talks.
The regime’s SANA news agency published photos of Assad meeting and embracing Bashir at the airport and quoted the Sudanese leader voicing support for Syria resuming its important leadership role.
For his part, Assad said adhering to “the causes of the Arab nation” would serve Arab states better than dependence on the West.
Bashir reportedly flew into the Hmeimim airbase in Latakia, the hub of Russia’s military operation in Syria, in a Russian air force plane.
Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement Moscow welcomed Bashir’s visit, hoping it would help to restore relations between Syria and the Arab states.
Assad’s other key ally, Iran, did not comment publicly on the visit, although a senior Iranian diplomat, Hossein Jaberi Ansari, did meet with the Syrian leader soon after Bashir’s departure, according to Tehran’s foreign ministry.
Sudan is a close ally of Saudi Arabia – Iran’s main regional foe – and has been participating in the Saudi-led airstrike campaign against Iranian-backed Houthi militia in Yemen.
Hassan Rostami, an Iranian analyst specializing in the “West Asia’ region, wrote in a Tasnim news agency article that Riyadh had likely given Bashir its blessing for the visit, and may even have asked him to convey a message to Assad.
Rostami said the visit showed that “strategic change has been achieved in the policies of the Arab countries towards Syria,” with no-one talking about Assad’s departure anymore.
Much has changed since the fall of 2011 when, after months of ignoring the growing crisis in Syria, the Arab League changed tack.
The bloc of Arab states suspended Syria’s membership that November, just months after its then-secretary-general Nabil Al-Arabi during a visit to Damascus rejected “foreign interference in the internal affairs of the Arab countries” – an implicit criticism of President Obama who one day earlier said Assad had lost “legitimacy in the eyes of his people.”
More than half a million Syrians have been killed in the conflict, which drew in support from some Sunni Arab states for anti-Assad forces while Russia, Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah fought to keep Assad in power.
Aside from Bashir’s previously-unannounced visit, Jordan recently sent a senior delegation to discuss ways of normalizing ties with the Syrian regime, and in another significant development the United Arab Emirates – also a close ally of Saudi Arabia – is moving towards reopening its embassy in Damascus.
Another member of the Arab League, Iraq, has responded halfheartedly throughout to the Arab League’s suspension of Syria. Iraq has a Shi’ite majority, and Assad is an adherent of the minority Alawite sect of Shi’ite Islam.
Western and Arab nations have accused Assad of crimes against humanity and war crimes, citing attacks against civilians using conventional and chemical weapons. Various groups have been gathering evidence on war crimes in Syria.
A member of a U.N. commission of inquiry on Syria, which was set up in August 2011, said last year it had gathered sufficient evidence to convict Assad of war crimes, but fretted that Russia would likely use its U.N. Security Council veto to block any such future action.
Meanwhile Bashir, an Islamist who seized power in Sudan in a 1989 coup, has been wanted by the International Criminal Court for almost a decade for alleged genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity arising from the conflict in Darfur.
He should in theory not be free to travel, since countries that are party to the ICC’s founding treaty, the Rome Statute, are obliged to cooperate with it, among other things by arresting indictees and surrendering them to the court in The Hague.
But Bashir has traveled relatively freely, visiting countries including China, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Ethiopia, South Africa, Malawi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
On Friday, the ICC’s chief prosecutor told the U.N. Security Council that unless it takes action against non-compliance, countries will continue to violate the Rome Statute by failing to arrest Bashir and others indicted by the tribunal.
Sudan’s delegate in turn accused the ICC of being “a tool of political bias,” complaining that it consistently refuses to press charges against the armed forces of powerful countries, but targets a sitting African head of state.