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Saudi foreign minister meets Syrian Assad in Damascus | Political News

The arrival of Saudi FM Prince Faisal bin Farhan is the first by a senior Saudi official since the start of the Syrian war.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has met with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud in the most important step so far to end Syria’s decade-long regional isolation.

Prince Faisal arrived in Damascus on Tuesday, a week after his Syrian president visited Saudi Arabia, Syrian state media reported.

The visit is the first by a Saudi official to the Syrian capital since the country’s civil war erupted in 2011.

The Saudi foreign ministry said in an online statement that the visit demonstrated the kingdom’s desire to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict in order to preserve the country’s “Arab identity and bring it back to the Arab environment”.

Assad has been politically isolated in the region since the start of the conflict, but a flurry of diplomacy has been underway over the past week as regional ties have shifted after Saudi Arabia and Damascus ally Iran decided to reconnect.

The trip comes less than a week after Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad visited Saudi Arabia, the first of its kind since the conflict began.

Diplomats from nine Arab countries met in the Saudi city of Jeddah last week to discuss ending Syria’s long diplomatic wilderness and the possibility of returning to the 22-nation Arab League after Damascus was suspended in 2011.

The diplomats stressed the “importance of Arab leadership in efforts to end the crisis,” according to a statement from the Saudi foreign ministry, but media reports suggested some countries remained opposed to Syria’s return to the Arab League.

Saudi Arabia severed ties with Assad’s government in 2012, and Riyadh has long publicly supported Assad’s ouster, backing Syrian rebels in the early stages of the war.

Several other Arab countries have also severed ties with Syria as some major powers bet on Assad’s demise.

But regional capitals have grown to warm to Assad as he regains most of the territory lost to rivals with significant support from Russia and Iran.

The United Arab Emirates, which reconnected in late 2018, has been leading the push to reintegrate Damascus into the Arab world.

Arab outreach

The Feb. 6 earthquake that wreaked havoc in Turkey and Syria sparked Arab contacts with Assad’s government, and Riyadh and Tehran announced a surprise rapprochement the following month.

After the earthquake, Assad himself visited Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

The Syrian foreign minister visited Algeria and Tunisia this month after a diplomatic push to visit Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Syria is to reopen its diplomatic mission in Tunisia and appoint an ambassador, following a similar move announced by Tunisia.

Prince Faisal had said in February that a consensus was being built in the Arab world that a new Syrian approach, negotiated with Damascus, was needed to resolve the humanitarian crisis.

Riyadh provides aid to rebel-held and government-held areas in Syria, but the effort does not involve direct contact with Assad’s government.

In March, Saudi state media said Riyadh and Damascus were in talks to resume consular services.

Rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia support opposing sides in several regional conflicts, including Yemen, and also compete for influence in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.

During a visit to Moscow last month, Assad told Russia Today broadcaster that “Syria is no longer the scene of the Saudi-Iran conflict”.

The war in Syria has killed more than half a million people, while about half of the country’s pre-war population has been displaced.

Assad hopes normalization with the wealthy Gulf states could bring economic relief and reconstruction funds, as broader international funding remains elusive without a UN-backed political solution to the conflict.

Sanctions on Syria are likely to continue to deter investment, analysts say.

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