Idlib, Syria – Thousands of Syrians have protested across the country against some Arab countries’ normalisation of relations with President Bashar al-Assad’s government and the country’s return to the Arab League.
The protests on Friday coincided with al-Assad’s participation in the Arab League summit taking place in Saudi Arabia, marking the Syrian president’s return to the summit after 12 years.
Thousands protested in Idlib, al-Bab, Azaz, Jarabulus, and Afrin, among other cities, under the slogan, “Criminal al-Assad Never Represents Syria”.
Demonstrations also took place in six cities outside Syria: Vienna, Amsterdam, London, Vaile, Stockholm and Lyon.
In the northwestern Syrian rebel-held city of Idlib, hundreds participated in the protests.
“We demonstrated today to remind those who are seeking to normalise their relations with the al-Assad regime that the Great Syrian Revolution started spontaneously as a response to the internal suffocation we endured under the Assad regime,” Ibrahim Aboud, one of the participants in the demonstration and a displaced civilian from Maarat al-Numan in northern Idlib, told Al Jazeera.
“When we first protested in 2011, we didn’t ask permission from anyone, and we didn’t take into considering the regional and international environment surrounding Syria.”
Aboud said he could not accept the Arab countries’ move, whether it was political, diplomatic, military, or economic, considering that the government has killed, displaced and imprisoned millions of Syrians for 12 years.
“We are determined to achieve the goals of the revolution and liberate Syria from the Assad regime and its thugs,” Aboud said.
‘Held him accountable’
The Arab League suspended Syria’s membership in May 2011 following the brutal way al-Assad handled the protests, as well as the civilians who started the Syrian revolution that year.
“Today, we send a message to the Arab and international community rejecting the return of the criminal Bashar al-Assad to the Arab League. They should have held him accountable instead of shaking his hands, which are stained with the blood of the Syrian people,” said Naif Shaban, a human rights activist and displaced civilian from Wadi Barada in the Damascus countryside.
“The normalisation will not change anything for us because this has been taking place under the table for the last 12 years. Today, it is happening publicly,” Shaban said
Syria’s war broke out after al-Assad’s repression of peaceful anti-government demonstrations in 2011 escalated into a deadly conflict that pulled in foreign powers and various armed groups.
More than half a million people have been killed and about half of the country’s pre-war population has been forced from their homes.
Idlib is home to about three million people, half of them displaced by the war.
‘Our revolution will continue’
In the Syrian city of Al-Bab, about 1,000 people staged a similar protest.
Jalal Talawi, one of the protest organisers in the city, said demonstrators were showing their firm rejection of al-Assad’s presence at the summit and normalisation with this “malicious regime”.
“Many people today were displaced by al-Assad’s regime and its supporters,” Talawi told Al Jazeera.
“Our message is crystal clear: Our revolution will continue until we achieve its goal and that’s freedom and liberation from this regime.
“Al-Assad doesn’t represent us as Syrians and we sent a clear message today to everyone supporting or opposing the revolution, that we will not accept this regime and are continuing until it falls and until we get all of our detainees back. We will continue despite the entire world standing in our way.”
In Azaz, a refuge for Syrians who fled from other parts of the country amid the war, 700 people gathered to protest.
‘We greatly appreciate Qatar’s stance’
Nor was Syria’s return to the Arab League universally embraced in the Saudi city of Jeddah where the meeting took place.
Qatar’s emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani departed the city after leading the Qatari delegation at the summit. While there was no confirmation, the Reuters news agency quoted an unnamed Arab official as saying that Sheikh Tamim left the summit before the start of al-Assad’s speech.
Qatar had previously opposed Syria’s return to the Arab League. Following its return to the Arab League, Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson said the country’s position “on normalisation with the regime had not changed”.
The spokesperson added that Qatar will still support the “Arab consensus and will not be an obstacle to that”.
Shaban, a protester in Idlib, added that people “appreciated Qatar’s stance against normalisation and their support for the rights of the Syrian people”.
“We wish other countries had a similar stance,” Shaban added.