Saudi FM Visits Syria as Relations Thaw

Saudi Minster of Foreign Affairs Faisal bin Farhan is escorted by the Syrian Minister of Presidential Affairs Mansour Azzam upon his arrival at Damascus airport Tuesday. (AP Photo/Omar Sanadiki)

BEIRUT (AP) — Saudi Arabia’s top diplomat arrived in the Syrian capital on Tuesday, the first official visit by an official from the kingdom in more than a decade, the Syrian government said.

The visit by Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan to Damascus follows that of his Syrian counterpart, Faisal Mikdad, to Riyadh last week. Syrian state news agency SANA reported that after his arrival, the Saudi top diplomat was received by Syrian President Bashar Assad.

A statement published by Saudi state media said that bin Farhan’s visit came “within the framework of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s keenness and interest to reach a political solution to the Syrian crisis that would end all its repercussions and preserve Syria’s unity, security, stability, and Arab identity and restore it to its Arab surroundings.”

The kingdom cut off diplomatic relations with Damascus in 2012, after the outbreak of Syria’s civil war. Syria and Saudi Arabia said last week they were moving toward restoring consular services and resuming flights between the two countries.

Syria was widely shunned by Arab governments over Assad’s brutal crackdown on protesters in a 2011 uprising that descended into civil war. The breakdown in relations culminated with Syria being ousted from the Arab League.

However, in recent years, as Assad consolidated control over most of the country, Syria’s neighbors have begun to take steps toward rapprochement. The overtures picked up pace since the massive Feb. 6 earthquake in Turkey and Syria, and the Chinese-brokered reestablishment of ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which had backed opposing sides in the Syrian conflict.

Saudi Arabia is hosting the next Arab League summit in May, when Syria’s membership is widely expected to be on the table. Some members, mainly Qatar, have opposed Damascus’ return to the organization.

On Friday, a group of regional leaders from the Arab Gulf countries as well as Egypt, Jordan and Iraq convened in Saudi Arabia to discuss Syria’s political fate.

Following the meeting, the group promised to continue talks to reach a political solution to the Syrian conflict, but stopped short of endorsing its return to the Arab League.

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