BEIRUT: Arab foreign ministers met on Wednesday in Saudi Arabia ahead of the Arab League’s annual summit in the kingdom to discuss the upcoming gathering’s agenda and draft resolutions.
This year’s summit, starting on Friday in the city of Jeddah, will mark the readmittance of war-torn Syria into the 22-member league, after a 12-year suspension.
Syria’s membership was frozen following Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s brutal crackdown on the 2011 mass protests against his rule.
The country quickly descended into a brutal civil war that has killed nearly half a million people and displaced half of the country’s pre-war population of 23 million.
Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said on Wednesday that the region is at a crossroads, facing a host of challenges.
He called for cooperation between Arab countries to achieve security, stability, and economic prosperity.
Farhan also welcomed Syria’s return, as did the league’s Secretary-General Ahmad Abu Al Gait and Algerian Foreign Minister Ahmad Attaf.
Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad held bilateral meetings this week in the kingdom with several of his counterparts as Damascus continues to appeal for much-needed investment in the war-torn country — crippled by the conflict and Western sanctions — and has moved to restore ties with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq.
Syria’s return to the Arab fold comes as Damascus is also trying to amend ties with Turkey, a key backer of the armed Syrian opposition groups in the country’s northwest.
But a few Arab countries remain sceptical of Syria’s return to the league, primarily Qatar.
Qatar’s top diplomat, Sheikh Mohammad bin Abdul Rahman Al Thani, said on Wednesday that his country opposes Syria’s return but that it doesn’t want to stand “against the Arab consensus.”
Each Arab country, however, can unilaterally normalise relations with Syria, he said.
For that to happen from Qatar’s perspective, Syria needs to go “through a just and comprehensive solution” to its conflict, Sheikh Mohammad added.
The summit also comes as Arab governments are scrambling to resolve the conflict in Sudan between the military, led by General Abdul Fattah Burhan, and the rival paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, commanded by Mohammad Hamdan Dagalo. The fighting in the East African country, which broke out in mid-April, has left over 600 people dead and displaced tens of thousands.
In Wednesday’s meeting, top diplomats from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Algeria called for a ceasefire in Sudan and an end to the escalating violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories.