Five nation committee meets in Cairo to discuss Syria normalisation

Part of the mandate of the Arab League's liaison committee is to ensure the preservation of Syria’s 'unity and territorial integrity'

Left to right, Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Faisal bin Farhan, Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein, Secretary General of the Arab League Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, and Lebanese Foreign minister Abdullah Bou Habib at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Cairo. EPA
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Members of an Arab five-nation committee set up to oversee the regional normalisation with Syria said on Tuesday that they were keen to resolve the civil war in the country, hinting at the need of cooperation from Damascus.

The foreign ministers of committee members Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Jordan met Syrian minister Faisal Mekdad in Cairo.

The Secretary General of the Arab League, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, also took part in the meeting.

Part of the mandate of the Arab League's liaison committee is to ensure the preservation of Syria’s “unity and territorial integrity”, while working to end the 12-year war in the country in all its “political, economic and humanitarian dimensions”, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said in a statement.

A final statement issued after the meeting said Mr Mekdad briefed the five ministers on efforts by his government to encourage the return home of refugees, determining the fate of the missing and reviving the country's troubled economy.

"The committee encourages the Syrian government to continue the steps and measures taken to deal with all the consequences of the Syrian crisis so as to fulfil the aspirations of the Syrian people in pulling through the relevant challenges and move to a better future," it said.

Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi met Mr Mekdad on the sidelines of the meeting. The pair addressed issues of priority between the two states, Jordan’s state news agency Petra said.

They also discussed “step by step” how to resolve the Syrian crisis, Petra reported.

This month, Jordan seized a stash of drugs along its border with Syria as part of a campaign by Jordanian authorities to stop large amounts of narcotics being smuggled into the kingdom from areas under the control of the Syrian regime.

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s government was invited to the Arab League summit in May as part of a normalisation process, after Damascus was expelled from the body in 2011.

The US has stood against thawing ties with Syria, with President Joe Biden repeating his position that Syria has taken actions to “support terrorism”.

But the Arab League has said that ostracising Syria has done little to resolve any of the country’s crises.

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan also held a one-on-one meeting with Mr Mekdad.

They discussed the “latest developments in Syria and the region,” according to the Saudi state news agency.

Mr Shoukry also met separately with the Syrian and Saudi ministers.

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry said Mr Shoukry told Mr Mekdad the committee would “offer a helping hand to the brotherly Syrian people to pull through their predicament”.

Syria's expulsion from the Cairo-based Arab League was in response to the government's violent suppression of peaceful, anti-regime protests.

The pro-democracy demonstrations soon developed into a civil war in which militants fought government troops and allied militias.

Several Arab countries later moved to improve ties with Mr Al Assad. These included lifting restrictions on trade with Syria and resuming diplomatic ties.

The normalisation process was accelerated after a Chinese-brokered detente in March between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Mr Al Assad’s main regional supporter.

Iran has sent billions of dollars' worth of crude oil to Damascus over the past decade and supervised proxy Shiite militias fighting on the government's side.

Iran's military and material support to Damascus have been crucial to the political survival of Mr Al Assad in the civil war.

Assad blames Arab countries for chaos

In an interview with Sky News Arabia last week, Mr Al Assad blamed Arab countries he did not name for what he called chaos in Syria, including a booming trafficking industry in the amphetamine known as Captagon, as well as other drugs.

The narcotics are mainly smuggled from areas under Mr Al Assad’s control in southern Syria to Jordan and then to Saudi Arabia. Arab officials say the illicit business is worth billions of dollars a year.

Syrian political commentator Aymen Abdelnour said despite different motives for Arab countries to accommodate Mr Al Assad, none appear to have met his main quest for aid, despite economic collapse in regime areas.

Mr Abdelnour said Mr Mekdad would adopt a more conciliatory tone at the Cairo meeting.

“The regime is bankrupt,” Mr Abdelnour said. “Even its supporters are starting to protest [over] the misappropriation of resources and meagre salaries and food.

“They are not complaining about lack of freedom or lack of dignity. Nonetheless it is worrying for the regime because it raises tension in its own areas,” he said, referring to Mr Al Assad’s core support areas in the Alawite Mountains on the coast.

Updated: August 16, 2023, 6:55 AM