BEIRUT (AP) — Egypt’s parliament speaker headed a Mideast delegation Sunday on a visit to Syria for talks with President Bashar Assad. The trip follows a mini-summit in Baghdad that affirmed the Arab League’s intentions of bringing Syria back into the region’s fold despite the country’s devastating civil war.
Speaker Hanafy el-Gebaly is the most senior Egyptian official to visit Syria in over a decade, after most Arab countries cut ties with Assad. Syria was suspended from the Arab League in 2011 after Assad’s government cracked down brutally on mass protests against his rule — an uprising that quickly descended into a brutal civil war.
Syria’s conflict has killed over 300,000 people and displaced half the country’s population of 23 million.
Palestinian and Lebanese lawmakers accompanied el-Gebaly on the visit, which followed the meeting of the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union on Saturday in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. They were to be joined by other Arab lawmakers later in the day.
In recent years, several Arab countries have moved to reestablish ties with Assad, a process that intensified following the massive Feb. 6 earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria and killed more than 47,000 people, including over 1,400 people in government-controlled areas of Syria and more than 2,400 in the rebel-held northwest. The quake further compounded Syria’s deep economic crisis.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia are among U.S. allies in the Middle East that delivered earthquake aid to government-held areas in Syria. The United Arab Emirates sent more aid-loaded planes than any other nation, including Syria’s key allies Russia and Iran.
El-Gebaly told reporters after landing in Damascus that the Arab delegation was “visiting brotherly Syria to support the Syrian people” after the quake. He cited the joint statement from the Baghdad meeting about the need to begin the process of “bringing Syria back to the Arab fold.”
“It’s natural that Syria will return some day, God willing, and matters will return to what they once were,” he said.