CAIRO - Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir traveled to Damascus on Sunday, catching many observers by surprise. According to Arab media, the visit is part of a Russian strategy to rehabilitate Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and reintegrate his government into mainstream Arab politics.
It was the first visit by an Arab head of state to the Syrian capital since the Assad government was expelled from the Arab League in 2011.
Saudi-owned Asharqalawsat newspaper reports the main purpose of the visit was to deliver a message that major Arab nations are willing to allow Damascus to rejoin the Cairo-based Arab League.
Sudan's president has become the first Arab leader to visit Damascus since the Syrian civil war began eight years ago.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad greeted Omar al-Bashir at the airport Sunday, the state-run news agency SANA reported.
Most Arab countries have closed their embassies in Damascus and condemned Assad for using overwhelming military force and failing to negotiate with the opposition.
Syria was also expelled from the 22-member Arab League.
No official reason was given for the visit, but SANA said the two leaders held talks at the presidential palace about developments in the
The fact that Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court, traveled to Syria on board a Russian plane suggests some measure of Russian eagerness to rehabilitate both Bashir and Assad, who has been ostracized by most Western leaders.
University of Paris political scientist Khattar Abou Diab said the Sudanese president is flirting between the United States and Russia to see what he can get financially, given Sudan's current economic difficulties.
He told VOA the irony of the Bashir visit to Damascus is that both the Sudanese and Syrian presidents are suffering from economic difficulties, but neither has much in the way of financial support to offer each other.
Abou Diab said Bashir is an "opportunist, who has been allies with just about everyone from Iran, to Saudi Arabia, and to Turkey and Qatar, with whom he shares sympathies with the Muslim Brotherhood."
American University of Beirut political science teacher Hilal Khashan said he believes the Saudis "urged Bashir, who is the recipient of their financial aid, to travel to Damascus to pave the road for Syria's reintegration into the Arab League."
"Remember when Mohammed bin Salman visited Buenos Aires recently for the G-20 summit? The only guy who welcomed him warmly was Putin," he told VOA. "So I think Putin convinced Mohammed bin Salman to do something about Assad in order to reintegrate Syria in the Arab League."
Russia has maintained backing for the Assad government throughout Syria's civil war. But Washington-based Gulf analyst Theodore Karasik said "Russia is driving the reconciliation process" between Syria and its Arab neighbors, with some help from Egypt and the UAE.
Two years ago, Russia withdrew from the International Criminal Court, which it called "one-sided." Bashir is wanted by the court for alleged crimes against humanity in Sudan's Darfur region.
He has periodically defied the court by traveling abroad to countries that decline to arrest him.