Arab Foreign Ministers held a landmark meeting with their Syrian counterpart in Amman to discuss a Jordanian plan to achieve normalization of ties with Syria as part of a broader political settlement of its more than decade-old conflict, officials said.
By Erin Viner
The talks are the first between Syria’s government and a several Arab countries since a decision to suspend Syria’s membership of the Arab League in 2011 following a brutal crackdown on protests against President Bashar al-Assad.
Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, Syria’s Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Iraq’s Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud attended the meeting.
“The issue of the return and participation of Syria to the Arab League is a decision to be taken by Arab countries,” said the Jordanian Foreign Minister, stressing that, “the decision to suspend Syria’s membership in the Arab League was an Arab decision made by the Arab League, therefore any decision in this direction is taken by the Arab League according to the framework of its mission.”
Minister Safadi went on to underscore that the process of restore Syria’s regional standing will undoubtedly take time.
Prior to the summit, Damascus’ and Amman’s top diplomats held bilateral discussions, according to the Jordanian Foreign Ministry. They addressed matters concerning the Syrian refugee crisis, water issues and border security, including the fight against drug smuggling, per the statement.
The Hashemite Kingdom has called on its neighbor to engage with Arab states jointly on a step-by-step strategy to end its conflict, as well as operations by Iran-backed proxies in Syria. The latter issue particularly impacts Israel, as Tehran’s terrorist allies in Syria – notably including the Hezbollah group – use the country as a base to target the Jewish State.
Jordan has been battling armed groups smuggling narcotics from Syria such as the highly-addictive amphetamine captagon. Amman is both a destination and a main transit route to the oil-rich Gulf countries for the illegal substance.
On Monday, state television reported the thwarting of a drug operation from Syria by the Jordanian military that left one smuggler dead and caused remaining members of the cell to flee back into Syrian territory.
The meeting comes two weeks after a summit in the Saudi city of Jeddah between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) with Egypt, Jordan and Iraq, which failed to achieve agreement on Syria’s possible return to the Arab fold. Resistance to allowing Assad to attend the Arab League summit was expressed by Qatar, Jordan and Kuwait, deeming it a premature move before Damascus agrees to negotiate a peace plan.
Arab states and those most impacted by the Syrian Civil War have been struggling to reach consensus on whether to invite Assad to the Arab League summit on 19 May in Riyadh, to discuss the pace of normalizing ties with the Syrian leader and on what terms Syria would be permitted to return.
Regional superpower Saudi Arabia long resisted normalizing ties with Syria but said after its recent rapprochement with Iran – Assad’s key regional ally – that a new approach was needed with Damascus.
The United States has taken note of Jordan’s proactive involvement in talks to reinstate Syria into the Arab League, and is among Western nation to impose sanctions against the Assad regime for atrocities it committed during the conflict – during which over a quarter of a million Syrians lost their lives.
Washington, which said it would not change its policy towards the Syrian government – which it has branded as a “rogue” state, has urged Arab states to get something in return for engaging with Assad.
Amman’s top diplomat on Sunday met with visiting US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf, said officials.
Nevertheless, for the purpose of avoiding a public rebuke of one of Washington’s closest allies in the Middle East, the US State Department focused on a Jordanian statement issued following the meeting, asserting that resolution of the Syria crisis would be based on United Nations Resolution 2254.
“We engage with our Jordanian partners closely on a number of issues. I am not going to get into the specifics of those,” stated US State Department Deputy Spokesman Vedant Patel during a press briefing. “We have seen those reports and understand that a communiqué was issued by the participants talking about their efforts to reach a solution relating to the crisis in Syria that is consistent with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. And we continue to believe that a political solution as outlined in 2254 remains the only viable option to the conflict, and we continue to work with our allies and partners as well through auspices within the UN to implement 2254.”
In related developments, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian declared that his nation’s President Ebrahim Raisi would visit Syria in “the near future” without providing details. Talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would mark the first such trip in over a decade as the two sides actively seek to further deepen cooperation. With military help and economic support from both Iran and Russia, Assad was able to turn the tide of the conflict and regain control of most of his war-torn nation.
Tehran’s top diplomat made the comments at the end of a visit to Lebanon where he conducted a tour of the Arab Republic’s southern frontier with Israel, and also met with Lebanese officials including Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah.
Amirabdollahian further asserted that Iran’s newly revived relationship with Saudi Arabia as part of a China-brokered deal “is in the best interest of the entire region.”
Saudi Arabia and Iran reopened their mutual embassies in one another’s countries earlier this week. Riyadh had severed ties with Tehran in 2016 after the storming of its embassy following execution of a Shi’ite Muslim religious leader in the Kingdom, also holding its longtime foe responsible for 2019 missile and drone attacks on its oil facilities and tankers in Gulf waters. Additionally, Iran’s Houthi proxy in Yemen has launched multiple cross-border missile and drone attacks against the Saudis, who are leading a coalition against them. The Houthis also extended their strikes to hit the United Arab Emirates in 2022.
Iran’s commitment to cease regional activities against Saudi interests also has far-reaching consequences for its proxies, the most powerful of which is the Lebanon-based Hezbollah terror organization, that refuses to believe that the Islamic Republic would end its support for its devotees regardless of its reported pledge.