By OMAR AKOUR
AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Jordan’s top diplomat said on Monday that regional talks with Syria are a step in the right direction to end a decade of the war-torn country’s political isolation and bring Damascus back into the Arab fold.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi’s remarks came as Jordan hosted a meeting of envoys from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt and Syria. Before the meeting kicked off, Safadi met one-on-one with his Syrian counterpart, Faisal Mekdad.
Damascus is slowly returning to the Arab fold after being ostracized over President Bashar Assad’s brutal crackdown on a 2011 uprising that descended into a yearslong civil war. However, as Assad consolidated control over most of the country in recent years, Syria’s neighbors have begun to take steps toward rapprochement.
The Jordanian Foreign Ministry said the meeting on Monday came as a follow-up to talks with Arab Gulf countries, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt held in Saudi Arabia last month and focused on a “Jordanian initiative to reach a political solution to the Syrian crisis.”
“There was clarity and honesty,” Safadi said of the talks in Amman. “This meeting is the beginning of an Arab-led political path to reach a solution to the crisis.”
The diplomats also discussed Syria’s humanitarian needs, especially in light of the devastating Feb. 6 earthquake that struck parts of Turkey and Syria, drug smuggling across Syria’s borders and the refugee crisis from the Syrian civil war.
“We agreed on mechanisms to start organizing their (the refugees’) safe and voluntary returns, in coordination with the United Nations,” he added.
The outreach to Damascus picked up pace after the February earthquake and the China-brokered reestablishment of ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which had backed opposing sides in Syria’s conflict.
Saudi Arabia, the regional heavyweight that once backed Syrian rebel groups, has been leading the rapprochement. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan visited Damascus last month for the first time since the kingdom cut ties with Syria more than a decade ago.
The kingdom will host a meeting of the Arab League this month, where many expect to see the start — if not full return — of Syria’s membership. Some resistance to that remains, mainly from Qatar. The Arab League is a regional organization of the Arab world, established to promote cooperation among its members.
Safadi declined to comment when asked about a precise date on Syria’s possible return to the league, saying it was up to the member states to make that decision.
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, and Abby Sewell and Kareem Chehayeb in Beirut contributed to this report.