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Syrians in exile say Arab normalisation with Assad audacious but not surprising

Arab League Summit, in Jeddah

By Riham Alkousaa

BERLIN (Reuters) - As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad addressed Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia on Friday, a group of Syrian refugees was in Germany learning to use international law to prosecute war criminals – which they hoped to apply to him someday.

‮"‬Every Syrian who suffered from this regime could represent a lawsuit and we will file these lawsuits. Even if the whole world stands with him, we will bring him to justice," said Houaida Muhi Aldeen, a 49-year-old Syrian living in France and a former political detainee in Syrian prisons.

Muhi Aldeen and other workshop attendants are among millions of Syrians displaced by the 12-year war. They found Assad's reintegration into the Arab League after more than a decade of isolation frustrating, but not surprising.

"This is the goal of this (normalization) step, to sow despair and frustration among Syrians," said Anwar al-Bunni, a lawyer helping prosecute Syrians suspected of war crimes in Germany.

Al-Bunni said the poor human rights and democracy records of Arab leaders made Assad's return par for the course, and that Gulf support for rebels ultimately played into Assad's hands by radicalising opposition groups that in turn suppressed democratic activism within their own ranks.

As the 2011 Syrian uprising shifted towards armed insurgency and later a civil war, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were major sponsors of that insurgency, arming an array of groups that were fighting to topple the Iran-backed president.

The 12-year-long war killed over 350,000 Syrians and forced more than 14 million to flee their homes, of which almost a million sought refuge in Europe.

Arab normalisation with Assad would make it more difficult for Syrian refugees to return, said Muhi Aldeen. Her husband disappeared at the hands of the government in 2014, she said.

"I would say two words, which we took as an oath: We would die rather than being ruled by al-Assad and we won't return as long as al-Assad is there," Muhi Aldeen said.

For Akil Hosain, 39, a Syrian journalist in France, the Arab League is a symbol of the pre-Arab Spring era, therefore Assad's readmittance comes as no surprise.

"Our surprise was that this step came in a very bold way, on the verge of audacious, if we could say," Hosain said.

But a warming Arab leadership to the Syrian president does not concern many Syrians in Europe of a similar rapprochement from the West as there are legal obstacles, lawyer Al-Bunni said.

"For Europe ... charging al-Assad and 60 people of his retinue for committing crimes against humanity ... is a legal obstacle, not just political, against rehabilitating criminals," he added.

Last year under the principle of universal jurisdiction that allows for the crimes to be addressed legally in some third-party states, a German court jailed after a trial a Syrian ex-intelligence officer for life for crimes against humanity, handing down the first conviction for state-backed torture committed during Syria's civil war.

(Additional reporting by Fanny Brodersen; Editing by Maya Gebeily and Grant McCool)