Jeddah talks put Syria regime in line for return to Arab fold
Arab countries will discuss in Jeddah on Friday ending the Syrian regime'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 will gather at Saudi Arabia's request.
Up for discussion in the Red Sea city is the Syrian regime's suspension from the Arab League, imposed when President Bashar Al-Assad's forces launched a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 2011.
Assad, backed by Iran and Russia, has been shunned by many Middle Eastern countries and is a Western pariah over Syria's 12-year war, which has killed more than half-a-million people and forced about half of the country's pre-war population from their homes.
But on Wednesday, in the latest sign of a drawing-down in tensions towards the regime, its 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 the regime's isolation, according to a Saudi statement on Wednesday.
Any recommendation for reinstatement to the 22-member Arab League, whose next meeting is due to be held in Saudi Arabia next month, is likely to draw protests from Western capitals.
The Syrian reigme'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.
"These bilateral engagements with Saudi Arabia and others are exactly what Damascus has been looking for," said Syria expert Sam Heller.
But late on Thursday, the prime minister of Qatar – an opponent of Assad's regime – poured cold water on talk of its 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.
'Overcome Gulf differences'
Friday's meeting is one in a flurry of events that were highly unlikely before Saudi Arabia and Iran's landmark, Chinese-brokered announcement on 10 March that they would resume ties, seven years after an acrimonious split.
On Wednesday, an Iranian delegation landed in Saudi Arabia to pave the way for reopening diplomatic missions, following a trip by a Saudi team in the opposite direction.
The Saudi ambassador to Yemen has held talks with Iran-backed Houthi rebels this week, aimed at ending the devastating civil war that has raged since a Saudi-led military intervention started in 2015.
And late on Wednesday, Qatar and its tiny Gulf neighbour Bahrain agreed to re-establish relations, putting aside a long-running diplomatic feud.
Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter, and Shia 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, a Riyadh-based diplomat who declined to be identified told AFP.
"The meeting aims to overcome the Gulf differences over Syria as much as possible," the diplomat said, 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.