From joy to dismay, Syrians split over Assad's Arab League return

Demonstrators hold the Syrian opposition flag as they gather during a protest against Arab normalization with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and the Arab League's reintegration of Syria, in the rebel-held city of Azaz

DAMASCUS/ATMEH, Syria (Reuters) - As some Syrians welcomed President Bashar al-Assad's return to the Arab League on Friday, others expressed dismay that Arab states had welcomed back a leader they blame for death and destruction during 12 years of brutal civil war.

The diverging views reflect deep splits in a nation shattered by the conflict that has killed more than 350,000 people, with swathes of territory still held by rebels opposed to Assad even as Arab states bring him in from the cold.

"I am happy to see such meetings restarting between Arab leaders, and I hope they will be useful for the Arab world, and for Syria specifically," said Naim Ibrahim, speaking in Damascus, Assad's seat of power.

But in the rebel-held north, a refuge for Syrians who fled Assad's rule from all over Syria, Abu Ahmad Maasaran said Arab states had welcomed back a "terrorist" who had used all kinds of weapons to destroy homes and force people to flee.

"What kind of Arab countries put their hands in his? His hand is dirty, how do you dirty your hands?" he said, speaking at a camp for displaced Syrians in the northwestern town of Atmeh near the Turkish border.

Arab states including Saudi Arabia - the host of Friday's summit - once backed rebels fighting Assad but have gradually changed policy towards the country, where the government beat back rebels with fire power from Russia and Iran.

Though the main frontlines have been largely frozen for years, humanitarian needs are at a record high, with 14.6 million in need of aid last year, before the scale of the crisis was exacerbated by an earthquake in February.

In Damascus, university student Wael Hmeideh said he hoped Syria's return to the Arab League would be good for the country.

"We hope the return of Syria to the Arab league, or the return of Arabs to Syria, plays a role to solve the crisis and conflict in the country, and end the Syrian war," he said.

But Mustafa Abu Khaled, speaking at the camp for displaced people in Atmeh, said Arab states had invited Assad to sit with them after his regime had "killed a million children, a million fathers, a million young people".

"Let him release our prisoners and return us to our homes before they think of returning (Assad to the Arab League) and reconcile with him," he said.

(Reporting by Reuters TV in Damascus and Khalil Ashawi in northwest Syria; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Nick Macfie)