BEIRUT – Arab foreign ministers Wednesday in Saudi Arabia welcomed back Syria to the Arab League and called for a cease-fire in conflict-hit Sudan ahead of the organization's annual summit taking place in the kingdom.
This year's summit, starting 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 Assad's brutal crackdown on the 2011 mass protests against his rule. The country quickly descended into a 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 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.
Bin Farhan also welcomed Syria’s return, as did the league's Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Algerian Foreign Minister Ahmed 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.
Mekdad after the meeting told reporters that he hopes Arab governments will help with reconstruction and Syrian refugee returns. He hinted that Assad will attend the summit Friday. “Per usual, Syria cannot be absent from any summit,” he said.
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 skeptical of Syria's return to the league, primarily Qatar.
Qatar's top diplomat, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, said 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 normalize 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 Mohammed added.
The summit also comes as Arab governments are scrambling to resolve the conflict in Sudan between the military, led by Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan, and the rival paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, commanded by Mohamed 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 cease-fire in Sudan and an end to the escalating violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Associated Press reporters Nick El Hajj and Lujain Jo in Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed to this story.