Syria has taken two key steps forward in its effort to re-establish relations with other Arab nations following years of isolation during the country’s civil war.
On Tuesday, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad welcomed Saudi Arabian foreign minister Faisal bin Farhan to Damascus for discussions on ending Syria’s suspension from the Arab League in time for the Arab summit in Riyadh on May 19th.
The Saudi foreign ministry said the visit displayed the kingdom’s desire to find a political solution to Syria’s conflict that would preserve the country’s “Arab identity, and return it to its Arab surroundings”.
Syria and Saudi Arabia are set to reopen their embassies in Riyadh and Damascus over the coming weeks.
Mr bin Farhan called for the creation of a suitable environment for delivering humanitarian aid throughout Syria, the return of displaced people and refugees to their home areas, and the stabilisation of all Syria, according to Beirut-based al-Mayadeen television channel’s website. It also reported that he invited Mr Assad to visit Riyadh after this week’s Eid festival ending the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The process of renewing Arab relations with Syria was given momentum by the February 6th earthquakes which devastated northwest Syria and southwest Turkey. Since then, Mr Assad has visited Oman and the United Arab Emirates, which reopened its embassy in Damascus in 2018, launching the normalisation of Arab relations with Syria.
While Mr bin Farhan was in Damascus, his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mekdad was in Tunis, where he met Tunisian foreign minister Nabil Ammar to mark the restoration of diplomatic ties between the two countries. The ministers agreed to resume trade and enhance security by combating terrorism.
Tackling terrorism is an existential issue for both countries as Tunisians formed the largest contingent of jihadis who travelled to Syria to mount the failed campaign to oust the government. Unable to return home, many Tunisians are said to be among fugitive fighters from the routed Islamic State, also known as Isis, who continue to mount attacks on civilians and troops in eastern Syria.
The support of Tunisia and Algeria – which has never cut ties with Syria – over Syria’s return to the Arab League bolsters the Saudi-Emirati effort to reach consensus before the summit next month.
During a gathering in the Saudi city of Jeddah last week of Gulf Cooperation Council members with Egypt, Iraq and Jordan, Qatar expressed its opposition to early Syrian rehabilitation. Morocco and Libya, which were not invited to Jeddah, are also opposed.
Meanwhile on Sunday, an Emirati ship arrived at the port of Latakia in Syria carrying 822.5 tonnes of relief and medical supplies and 685 tonnes of building materials for victims of the quakes which killed 1,400, injured 2,500, displaced 105,000 and affected 8.8 million people in Syria. The World Bank estimated the cost of rebuilding at $7.9 billion (€7.2bn) over three years.