RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Arab countries gathered in Jeddah on Friday to discuss ending Syria’s long spell in the diplomatic wilderness, as regional relations shift following Saudi Arabia and Iran’s decision to resume ties.
Ministers and top officials from the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — plus Egypt, Iraq and Jordan are meeting at Saudi Arabia’s request.
Up for discussion in the Red Sea city is Syria’s suspension from the Arab League, imposed when President Bashar al-Assad’s government launched a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 2011.
Backed by Iran and Russia, Assad has been shunned by many Middle Eastern countries and is a Western pariah over the war, which has killed more than half-a-million people and forced about half of Syria’s pre-war population from their homes.
But on Wednesday, in the latest sign of an easing in tensions with Damascus, Syria’s Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad arrived in Jeddah, the first such visit since the war began.
Mekdad and his Saudi counterpart discussed “the necessary steps” to end Damascus’s isolation, according to a Saudi statement on Wednesday.
Any recommendation to reinstate Syria in the 22-member Arab League, whose next meeting is due to be held in Saudi Arabia in May, is likely to draw protests from Western capitals.
Syria’s rehabilitation sends “a message to the opposition that Assad will triumph in the end and that their foreign backers will betray them,” Aron Lund of the Century International think tank told AFP.
Inhabitants of rebel-held Idlib, in northern Syria, said they felt “betrayed” by the moves to rehabilitate Assad’s government.
“We, the people who live in northern Syria, felt extremely betrayed when we heard about the normalization with Assad,” Rama Sifu, 32, who lives in Idlib, told AFP.
“How come after 12 years of struggle and revolution, they come today and tell him: here is your seat back at the Arab League? This is unacceptable, we really felt let down.”
But late Thursday, the prime minister of Qatar — an opponent of Assad’s government — poured cold water on talk of Syria’s possible return to the Arab League.
“There is nothing proposed, it is all speculation,” Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al-Thani said in a television interview.
The Jeddah meeting is one of a flurry of initiatives following Saudi Arabia and Iran’s landmark, Chinese-brokered announcement on March 10 that they would resume ties, seven years after an acrimonious split.
Also on Friday, an exchange of nearly 900 prisoners from Yemen’s civil war between the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and a Saudi-led coalition got underway when flights carrying captives travelled between rebel- and government-controlled areas.
The Saudi ambassador to Yemen this week held talks with Houthi forces aimed at ending the devastating civil war that has raged since the Saudi-led military intervention started in 2015.
And late on Wednesday, gas-rich Qatar and its tiny but strategic Gulf neighbors Bahrain agreed to re-establish relations, putting aside a long-running diplomatic feud.
Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, and Shiite theocracy Iran have long been vying for influence around the region, with Yemen and previously Syria among their proxy conflicts.
But analysts say Saudi Arabia is now trying to calm the region to allow it to focus on ambitious domestic projects aimed at diversifying its energy-dependent economy.
Although the Arab League takes decisions by consensus, unanimous agreement is unlikely, said a Riyadh-based diplomat who declined to be identified.
“The meeting aims to overcome the Gulf differences over Syria as much as possible,” the diplomat told AFP, singling out Qatar.
“The Saudis are trying at least to ensure that Qatar does not object to Syria’s return to the Arab League if the issue is put to any vote,” the diplomat added.