Syria agrees to curb drug trade at Arab ministers meeting
By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
AMMAN (Reuters) -Syria has agreed to help end drug trafficking across its borders with Jordan and Iraq, according to a statement issued after a landmark meeting on Monday of Arab diplomats developing a roadmap to end Syria's 12-year conflict.
The foreign ministers of Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Jordan met in the Jordanian capital Amman to discuss how to normalise ties with Syria as part of a political settlement of its war, which has shattered and divided the country.
The talks are the first between Syria's government and a group of Arab countries since a decision to suspend Syria's membership of the Arab League in 2011 after a crackdown on protests against President Bashar al-Assad.
A final statement issued after the meeting said the officials had discussed pathways for the voluntary return home of millions of displaced Syrians and coordinated efforts to combat drug trafficking across Syria's borders.
It said that Damascus had agreed to "take the necessary steps to end smuggling on the borders with Jordan and Iraq" and work over the next month to identify who was producing and transporting narcotics into those two countries.
There was no immediate comment from the Syrian foreign minister Faisal Mekdad.
Syria is accused by Arab governments and the West of producing the highly-addictive and lucrative amphetamine captagon and organizing its smuggling into the Gulf.
Top Syrian officials and relatives of Assad have been put on sanctions lists in recent months in the United States, United Kingdom and European Union over the trade.
'STEPS ON THE GROUND'
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Jordanian foreign minister Ayman Safadi said the meeting was "a start, and the process is ongoing" to secure an end to the conflict.
"There must be steps on the ground that lead to an improvement in the reality in which Syria and the Syrians live," Safadi said.
Asked whether they had discussed Syria's return to the Arab League, Safadi said the decision would have to be taken by the body itself. He did not say whether it was on the agenda for the next League summit in Saudi Arabia on May 19.
Jordan has called on Syria to engage with Arab states jointly on a step-by-step roadmap to end the conflict, tackling the issues of refugees, detainees, drug smuggling and Iran-backed militias in Syria - all of which affect its neighbours.
Mekdad met bilaterally with Safadi before the group meeting to discuss refugees, water issues and border security, including the fight against drug smuggling, according to Jordan's foreign ministry.
Amman has been fighting armed groups smuggling narcotics from Syria, including captagon, for which Jordan is both a destination and a main transit route to the oil-rich Gulf.
On Monday, Jordan's state television said the military had thwarted a drug smuggling operation from Syria, leaving one smuggler dead and the rest fleeing back into Syrian territory.
The meeting comes two weeks after talks in the Saudi city of Jeddah between the Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq, where some countries said Syria's return to the Arab fold was premature before Damascus agrees to negotiate a peace plan.
Arab states and those most impacted by the conflict are trying to reach consensus on the pace of normalising ties with Assad, whether to invite him to the Arab League summit and on what terms Syria could be allowed back.
Regional superpower Saudi Arabia long resisted normalising relations with Assad but said after its rapprochement with Iran - Syria's key regional ally - a new approach was needed with Damascus.
(Reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman and Maya Gebeily in Beirut; Writing by Maya Gebeily; Editing by Philippa Fletcher)