Syria agrees to work on countering narcotics smuggling after Arab meeting in Amman

US and Qatar not in favour of push for normalisation with Damascus

Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad continues his rounds of diplomacy in meeting with Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi in Amman. AFP
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The Syrian government agreed to work on “effective steps” to counter the narcotics trade, which poses a major security threat to its neighbours, during an Arab meeting in Amman on Monday to discuss normalising ties with Damascus.

Curbing the narcotics trade is a major goal of a drive partly led by Jordan towards opening a new diplomatic chapter with President Bashar Al Assad, who is supported by Iran.

Jordan has blamed the Syrian military and Iran-backed militias for the proliferation of the trade, which has enriched the government and its militia allies.

Differences among Arab powers have impeded the normalisation of ties, as has scepticism from the US, which has pointed out Iran's deep links with Syria.

A joint communique issued after the meeting between the foreign ministers of Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia said Damascus would co-operate on “identifying the sources of production of narcotics in Syria and its smuggling” and “the parties that organise and manage and execute the smuggling”.

The statement said the five countries had agreed to “reach consensus on effective steps to deal with the security challenges related to border security through establishment of effective co-ordination mechanisms” between Syrian security forces and their Arab counterparts.

The communique also called for “all terrorist armed groups” to leave Syria, as their presence threatened “regional and international security”.

The Syrian government also agreed to “identify” what is required to improve public services in areas where refugees could return to, with the possibility of Arab financing being made available for this purpose.

Infrastructure improvements should aim at “providing a dignified living to those refugees who chose to return voluntarily to Syria”, the statement said, suggesting that the Syrian regime could enact an amnesty for returning refugees.

Upon the arrival of Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad to Amman on Monday, Jordan announced its armed forces had killed a smuggler on the border with Syria, highlighting the problem of illegal drugs at the centre of talks with Damascus.

The Jordanian military said Jordanian border troops were involved in a battle overnight with a group of smugglers from Syria, killing one of them.

A military official said 133,000 Captagon pills were seized, as well an AK-47 rifle and a quantity of ammunition.

The Syrian government was ostracised by much of the Arab world and western countries for its suppression of the 2011 protests against five decades of Assad family rule.

A gathering in Jeddah two weeks ago, held shortly after a detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran was announced, did not bridge Arab differences over how to approach the Syria question.

A Jordanian official said the narcotics issue as well as obtaining guarantees for the safe return of refugees, even to areas where militias supported by Iran hold sway, was discussed in the Jeddah meeting.

He said the discussions have focused on “a detailed road map that deals with all the key issues”.

But Qatar, which attended the meeting in Jeddah after publicly opposing Damascus's return, was not be represented at the Amman meeting on Monday.

Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said last month that the reasons behind the “boycott of the Syrian regime” and its suspension from the Arab League persist.

Saudi Foreign Minister visits Syria for first time since 2011

Saudi Foreign Minister visits Syria for first time since 2011

Syria was suspended from the league in November 2011 after its government used tanks to repress demonstrations in provincial capitals such as Deraa, Hama and Deir Ezzor. Thousands of people, mostly civilians, were killed.

The Arab effort to bring Syria back into the international fold has been met by a lukewarm response from Washington.

On Saturday in Amman, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi met Barbara Leaf, the US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. The official Jordanian news agency said regional issues “of mutual interest” were discussed.

A senior western diplomat said the US told Jordan and other Arab countries that any business exchange with Syria pursuant to normalisation could run afoul of American sanctions on Damascus.

“The US has not been interfering, and in some ways it cannot, with the drive for normalisation,” the diplomat said.

“But Washington has made it clear that Arab companies have a lot at stake in the US and that Syria might not be worth risking it.”

Large parts of Syria, including the oil and wheat producing east, remain outside the control of the government, with the country divided into zones of Iranian, Russian and US dominance.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is scheduled to visit Damascus on Wednesday.

Updated: May 01, 2023, 5:42 PM