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After a decade, Arab League considers allowing Syria to rejoin

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The Arab League met on Friday to discuss allowing Syria to join the bloc after more than a decade of diplomatic isolation, amid efforts by some countries to mend relations in the region.

Ministers and senior officials from the six Gulf Cooperation Council states — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — as well as Egypt, Iraq and Jordan have arrived in Saudi Arabia at the kingdom’s request, the foreign ministry said.

There was no mention of Syria’s participation in the talks, which preceded Friday’s meeting between Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan and the US National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, Brett McGurk.

The kingdom has not yet disclosed details of the Jeddah meeting, but still under discussion is the suspension of Syria’s membership in 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 ostracized by many Middle Eastern countries and is shunned by the West for a war that 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 easing tensions with Damascus, Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad arrived in Jeddah for the first such visit since the war began.

Al-Miqdad and his Saudi counterpart discussed the “necessary steps” to end Damascus’ isolation, according to a Saudi statement on Wednesday.

Any recommendation to reinstate Syria as a member of the 22-nation Arab League, whose next meeting is scheduled to take place in Saudi Arabia in May, is likely to spark protests from Western capitals.

“betrayal”

Aaron Lund of the International Century Research Center told Agence France-Presse that rehabilitating Syria sends a message to the opposition that Assad will eventually prevail and that their foreign backers will betray them.

Residents of opposition-held Idlib in northern Syria said they felt “betrayed” by moves to rehabilitate the Assad government.

“We, the people of northern Syria, felt very betrayed when we heard about normalization with Assad,” Rama Sifu, 32, who lives in Idlib, told AFP.

“How did it happen that after 12 years of struggle and revolution, they come today and say to him: Here is your seat in the League of Arab States? This is unacceptable, we really felt frustrated.”

But late Thursday, the prime minister of Qatar – an opponent of the Assad government – poured cold water on talk of Syria’s possible return to the Arab League, saying it was not possible without a political solution.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani said in a televised interview, “There is nothing proposed. All this is speculation.”

The Jeddah meeting is one of a series of initiatives in the wake of Saudi Arabia and Iran’s March 10 China-brokered announcement to resume relations, after seven years of sharp division.

Also on Friday, the exchange of nearly 900 prisoners from Yemen’s civil war between the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition began when flights carrying prisoners traveled between opposition and government-held areas.

This week, the Saudi ambassador to Yemen held talks with Houthi forces aimed at ending the devastating civil war that has raged since the Saudi-led military intervention began in 2015.

Overcoming Gulf differences

And late Wednesday, gas-rich Qatar and its Gulf neighbor Bahrain agreed to restore relations, putting aside a long-running diplomatic dispute.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, and Iran have long been competing for influence across the region, with Yemen, and formerly Syria, among their proxy struggles.

But analysts say Saudi Arabia is now trying to mollify the region to allow it to focus on ambitious domestic projects aimed at diversifying its energy-dependent economy.

A Riyadh-based diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that although the Arab League takes its decisions unanimously, a unanimous agreement is unlikely.

“The meeting aims to overcome the Gulf differences over Syria as much as possible,” the diplomat told AFP.

“The Saudis are at least trying to ensure that Qatar does not object to Syria’s return to the Arab League if the matter comes to any vote,” the diplomat added.

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