After meeting in Saudi Arabia to discuss Syria’s political fate, a group of regional leaders promised Saturday to continue talks to reach a political solution to the Syrian conflict but stopped short of endorsing its return to the Arab League, The New York Times reported.
The meeting, which included top diplomats from the Arab Gulf countries as well as Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq, was convened days after Syria’s foreign minister visited Saudi Arabia for the first time since the kingdom cut off diplomatic relations with Syria in 2012.
Syria and Saudi Arabia said Thursday they were moving toward reopening embassies and resuming flights between the two countries for the first time in more than a decade.
Syria was widely shunned by Arab governments over Syrian President Bashar Assad’s brutal crackdown on protesters in a 2011 uprising that descended into civil war. The breakdown in relations culminated with Syria being ousted from the Arab League.
However, in recent years, as Assad consolidated control over most of the country, Syria’s neighbours have begun to take steps toward rapprochement. The overtures picked up pace since the massive February 6 earthquake in Turkey and Syria, and the Chinese-brokered reestablishment of ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which had backed opposing sides in the Syrian conflict.
Saudi Arabia is hosting the next Arab League summit in May when Syria’s membership is widely expected to be on the table. Some members, mainly Qatar, have opposed Damascus’s return to the organization.
Qatar did not appear to have changed its stance after the meetings convened in Jeddah late Friday.
A statement issued by the Saudi Foreign Ministry Saturday said the ministers had “stressed that a political solution is the only solution to the Syrian crisis and the importance of having an Arab leadership role in efforts to end the crisis.” They agreed to “set up the necessary mechanisms” to do so and hold “intensifying consultations among Arab countries to ensure the success of these efforts.”
The ministers also condemned recent Israeli police raids at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City and “emphasized the centrality and priority of the Palestinian cause, and condemned illegal Israeli practices that undermine the two-state solution” with an “independent and sovereign Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem” based on pre-1967 borders, the statement said.
In general, there is little consensus among them about how they should deal with Syria and what concessions they might demand in return for rebuilding relations, but the direction is clear. The Middle East has gone through a geopolitical reordering. A series of Iran-backed attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, combined with a perception that the US was either incapable of or uninterested in protecting its Gulf partners from Iran, pushed both countries to deal with Iran more directly.
The change in tone is also seen as a political boon for Mr. al-Assad, triggering fears from his opponents that it could be the start of his reintegration into the international community with virtually no consequences for abuses during the war. A devastating earthquake that hit northwestern Syria in February resulted in Arab officials meeting with al-Assad and sending planeloads of aid. The United States also eased banking restrictions for six months to allow relief to flow freely to Syria.
Syrians Protest ‘normalization’ with Assad
After the meeting, protests took place across parts of northwestern Syria on Friday, rejecting Saudi-led normalisation efforts between the Assad regime and a number of Arab countries.
According to the New Arab, demonstrations took place in the cities of Idlib, Azaz and Afrin, where protesters rejected calls by some Arab nations for reconciliation with Damascus.
Demonstrations also took place in the village of Al-Jalama in Jindires in Aleppo governorate, and Tal Abyad, Raqqa.
One participant, Zakaria Suno, told The New Arab’s Arabic-language site, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, that demonstrators want to convey that “the people’s revolution is continuing”.
“The Syrian people, who have been abandoned and tasted scourge, will never be satisfied with returning to Assad’s rule, even if all countries normalize relations with him,” he further added.
Another participant, activist Radwan al-Abrash, said that the Arab countries normalization with the regime “came with the international community’s laxity in implementing UN resolutions and achieving a political transition in Syria”.
Protesters also condemned steps towards normalization between Saudi Arabia and Syria, following Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad’s visit to Riyadh earlier this week.
Syria’s FM to Algeria, Tunisia to revive diplomatic ties
Syria’s chief diplomat has started a visit to Algeria and Tunisia as part of efforts to revive diplomatic relationships in the Arab world, more than a decade after his country was globally isolated amid President Bashar Assad’s brutal crackdown on mass protests against his rule, AP reported.
Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad was welcomed on Saturday in the lounge of Algiers airport by his Algerian counterpart Ahmed Attaf.
In remarks broadcast by Algerian public television. Mekdad insisted that “relations between the two brotherly countries exist and will continue to exist … beyond the vicissitudes of the situation.”
“My visit will be an opportunity for discussions between the two countries on the latest developments in the region. We need to strengthen this bilateral relationship,” he added.
Algeria is one of the few Arab countries that did not cut off relations with Syria during the civil war that followed the 2011 uprising.
Mekdad is scheduled to head to Tunisia on Monday, where he is to reopen Syria’s embassy.
Tunisian President Kais Saied announced earlier this month that he had directed the country’s foreign ministry to appoint a new ambassador to Syria. His move was reciprocated by the Syrian government, according to Syrian state news agency SANA.
Opposition party vows refugee-free Turkey, better ties with Syria
Good Party (IYI), a member of the Nation Alliance of the opposition, unveiled its election manifesto Sunday. Party chair Meral Akşener announced the manifesto at an event in the capital Ankara, according to The Daily Sabah.
IYI says refugees (namely, those from Syria) would not be given citizenship and all “privileges” they were entitled to would be rendered invalid. All irregular migrants will be rounded up immediately for deportation, it also pledged.
The main source of refugees is Turkey’s neighbour Syria and IYI pledges to maintain good ties with Syria, by signing a “good neighbourhood and friendship agreement” and updating the 1998 Adana Agreement. The said agreement was signed with the primary goal of the expulsion of members of the terrorist group PKK from Syria.
Syria scrapped the deal after the civil war erupted over Turkey’s support for the opposition forces. Turkey recently resumed talks for normalization with the Assad regime though no concrete deal is expected before the elections.
Third UAE aid ship arrives at Lattakia Port
In line with the directives of President His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a third UAE aid ship, carrying over 2,000 tonnes, arrived at the Port of Lattakia as part of the UAE’s post-quake recovery plan in Syria under ‘’Operation Gallant Knight / 2’’.
WAM (Emirates News Agency) reported that the Ministry of Defence’s Joint Operations Command announced the largest aid ship of its kind, which ran by the Emirates Red Crescent (ERC), carried more than 2,215 tonnes including 1,392.5 tonnes of food supplies, 822.5 tonnes of relief and medical assistance and 685 tonnes of building materials.
Hammoud Abdullah Al Junaibi, Acting Secretary-General of ERC, said that this aid comes within the framework of the UAE’s role to mitigate the repercussions of the earthquake that hit Syria last February, highlighting the leadership’s keenness to provide the best humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people in order to help them overcome their current circumstances.
“The ERC will continue to scale up its humanitarian response for the best interest of the quake-affected people in Syria as part of ‘Operation Gallant Knight / 2’. We are acting and moving in different directions to relieve the suffering caused by the disaster,” he added.
For his part, Amer Ismail Hilal, Governor of Lattakia, lauded the UAE’s efforts aimed at alleviating the suffering of the quake-affected people in Syria and its solidarity with the Syrian people since the early phases of the disaster.
The UAE launched “Operation Gallant Knight / 2” to provide assistance for the peoples of Syria and Turkey following the devastating quakes that struck the two countries in February.
U.S. citizen sues Syria over torture amid regional embrace of Assad
Obada Mzaik, a Syrian-American man, has filed a lawsuit against the Syrian government for allegedly torturing him while he was detained in the country for three weeks in 2012.
Mzaik is seeking to hold the government accountable under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which allows lawsuits against designated state sponsors of terrorism for the torture of U.S. nationals.
The lawsuit alleges that Mzaik was beaten, whipped, and threatened with electrocution while he was detained at the Air Force Intelligence Directorate’s central branch at the Mezzeh Military Airport in Damascus.
The Syrian government has been served with the complaint and is not expected to respond. Many Syrians remain detained by the regime, and avenues for justice are limited as Syria is not a member state of the International Criminal Court.