Idlib, Syria – Thousands of Syrians demonstrated across the country against the normalization of relations of some Arab countries with the government of President Bashar al-Assad and the return to the Arab League.
Friday’s protests coincided with al-Assad’s attendance at the Arab League summit being held in Saudi Arabia, marking the Syrian president’s return to the summit after 12 years.
Thousands of people demonstrated 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 rebel-held city of Idleb in northwestern Syria, hundreds of people took part in the protests.
“We demonstrated today to remind those seeking to normalize relations with the al-Assad regime that the Great Syrian Revolution began spontaneously in response to the internal suffocation we endured under the Assad regime. Ibrahim Aboud, one of the protest participants and a displaced civilian from Maarat al-Numan in northern Idlib, told Al Jazeera.
“When we first protested in 2011, we didn’t ask anyone’s permission and didn’t take into account the regional and international environment surrounding Syria.”
Aboud said he could not accept the Arab countries’ decision, be it political, diplomatic, military or economic, given 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.
‘Hold him responsible’
The Arab League suspended Syria’s membership in May 2011 over al-Assad’s brutal handling of protests, as well as civilians who sparked the Syrian revolution that year.
“Today we send a message to the Arab and international community rejecting the return of criminal Bashar al-Assad to the Arab League. They should have held him responsible 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 rural Damascus.
“Normalization will not change anything for us because it has been going under the table for 12 years. Today it is happening publicly,” Shaban said.
The war in Syria erupted after al-Assad’s crackdown on peaceful protests against the government in 2011 escalated into a deadly conflict that drew in foreign powers and various armed groups.
More than half a million people were killed and about half of the country’s pre-war population was driven from their homes.
Idlib is home to around three million people, half of whom have been displaced by war.
“Our revolution will continue”
In the Syrian town of Al-Bab, around 1,000 people staged a similar protest.
Jalal Talawi, one of the organizers of the protest in the city, said the protesters were showing their firm rejection of al-Assad’s presence at the top and normalization with this “evil regime”.
“Today many people have been displaced by the al-Assad regime and its supporters,” Talawi told Al Jazeera.
“Our message is clear: our revolution will continue until we achieve its goal, which is freedom and liberation from this regime.
“Al-Assad does not represent us as Syrians and we have sent a clear message today to all those who support or oppose the revolution that we will not accept this regime and will continue until he falls and until we get all our inmates back. We will continue despite the whole world that stands in our way.
In Azaz, a haven for Syrians who fled from other parts of the country during the war, 700 people gathered to protest.
“We greatly appreciate the position of Qatar”
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, left the city after leading the Qatari delegation to the summit. Although there was no confirmation, Reuters news agency quoted an unnamed Arab official as saying that Sheikh Tamim left the summit before al-Assad’s speech began.
Qatar had previously opposed Syria’s return to the Arab League. After returning to the Arab League, Qatar’s foreign ministry spokesperson said the country’s stance “on normalization with the regime has not changed”.
The spokesman added that Qatar will always support the “Arab consensus and will not be an obstacle to it”.
Shaban, a protester in Idlib, added that people “appreciated Qatar’s stance against normalization and its support for the rights of the Syrian people”.
“We want other countries to take a similar position,” Shaban added.