Now back in wider Arab fold, Syria’s foreign minister visits diplomatic ally Iraq

Faisal Mekdad and his Iraqi counterpart Fuad Hussein discuss aid in wake of devastating February earthquake, future of displaced Syrians who fled civil war

Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein (R) and his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mekdad hold a press conference in Baghdad on June 4, 2023. (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP)
Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein (R) and his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mekdad hold a press conference in Baghdad on June 4, 2023. (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP)

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Syria’s foreign minister on Sunday discussed humanitarian aid and combating the illegal drugs trade with key ally Iraq during a visit to Baghdad as Damascus emerges from years of diplomatic isolation.

The visit by Faisal Mekdad comes weeks after the Arab League agreed to end Syria’s suspension from the 22-member bloc, bringing President Bashar Assad’s regime back into the regional fold after years of civil war.

Iraq remained an ally of Damascus throughout the wider Arab boycott, never severing relations and maintaining close cooperation during Syria’s civil war, particularly over the fight against the Islamic State group.

Baghdad was “one of the initiators” of Syria’s return to the Arab League, Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein said in a joint press conference with Mekdad.

The two also discussed the issue of Syrian refugees who fled the country after war erupted, many of whom now live in Iraq as well as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

“We received about 250,000 refugees,” said Hussein, who added that the majority of them live in camps in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region.

He said the next step would be getting humanitarian aid into Syria, which has been devastated by the war and by a February 6 earthquake that also hit Turkey and killed tens of thousands in both countries.

The quake triggered a flurry of aid efforts and diplomatic moves that help spur Syria’s reintegration back into the wider Arab region.

This photograph taken on February 16, 2023, shows damaged buildings in Islahiye, near Gaziantep, Turkey, after the 7.8-magnitude earthquake which struck parts of Turkey and Syria. (Zein Al RIFAI / AFP)

Mekdad on Sunday thanked Iraq for its “solidarity” after the quake, also hailing the “progression” of bilateral relations.

“We will continue to cooperate to combat terrorism and eliminate the danger posed by drugs,” he added in a reference to the illegal trade in the stimulant captagon.

Mekdad was also expected to meet Iraqi Prime Minister Mohamed Shia al-Sudani and President Abdul Latif Rashid, Iraqi foreign ministry spokesman Ahmed al-Sahaf told the state news agency.

Drug trade, water scarcity

The Arab League voted on May 7 to readmit Syria after its suspension in 2011 over Assad’s brutal repression of pro-democracy protests that later devolved into an all-out war.

At the time, Iraq had abstained from the vote that resulted in Damascus’s suspension.

The two countries share a 600-kilometer (370-mile) porous desert border that has continued to see militant activity even years after the defeat of IS.

The terror group took over large swaths of both countries in 2014, declaring its “caliphate” before it was defeated in 2017 in Iraq and in 2019 in Syria.

Drug trafficking has also proliferated in past years, with the trade of the amphetamine-like drug captagon exploding in the region, much of it across the Syria-Iraq border. Iraqi guards in March seized over three million captagon pills at the border with Syria.

Two Syrian refugee children play on a motorcycle at an informal tented settlement, in Irbil, northern Iraq, September 10, 2015. (Seivan M. Salim/AP)

In addition to security coordination, Baghdad and Damascus continue to coordinate on other key issues including water as both countries face dangerous shortages.

Dam-building in neighboring countries and climate change impacts have dramatically reduced water flows in both countries, disrupting agriculture and threatening livelihoods amid persistent economic challenges.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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