Syrians in rebel-held north protest Assad's return to Arab League
Hundreds protested in rebel-held northern Syria on Friday against President Bashar al-Assad's participation in the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia after a more than decade-long suspension, AFP correspondents reported.
Demonstrators in the town of Azaz chanted: "The people want the fall of the regime," rallying cry of the protests of 2011 that were bloodily suppressed by Assad's government triggering more than a decade of civil war.
"Syria cannot be represented by Assad the criminal," read a banner at the protest in the town, which is under the control of pro-Turkish rebels.
Anti-Assad protests took part in other rebel-held cities, including Al-Bab and Afrin, where a crowd unfurled a large opposition flag.
Assad was attending his first Arab League summit since the bloc suspended Syria in late 2011 over the crackdown on peaceful protests.
Civil war has since killed more than 500,000 people and driven around half the pre-war population from their homes.
"We call on the Arab peoples to put pressure on their governments to go back on the decision (to re-admit Syria) and for Bashar al-Assad to leave," said Issam Khatib, a lawyer originally from the northern city of Aleppo.
Assad had been politically isolated in the region since the war began, but a devastating February 6 earthquake that killed thousands in Turkey and Syria sparked Arab outreach.
A flurry of diplomatic activity has seen Saudi Arabia and Assad ally Iran patch up ties, shifting regional relations.
The detente with Damascus is a heavy blow to Syria's political and armed opposition, which received Arab support particularly in the conflict's early stages.
Damascus now controls most of Syria, after clawing back much of the ground it had lost with the support of allies Iran and Russia.
Remaining rebel-held areas in the north and northwest, controlled by Islamist groups and Turkish-backed fighters, are home to more than four million people, at least half of whom have been displaced from other parts of the country.
In the northwestern city of Idlib, controlled by jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, hundreds protested, some holding placards that read "no normalisation".
"What has happened (at the Arab League) is a black mark on your file," said protester Hala Ibrahim, addressing Arab leaders.