BEIRUT

Middle East

Syria 'contact group' to meet in Cairo: Iran

CAIRO: The foreign ministers of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey are to hold their first high-level meeting on the Syrian conflict on Monday in Cairo, Egyptian state media reported.

The four will meet at the foreign ministry "to implement the Egyptian initiative to resolve the crisis in Syria," Al-Ahram daily reported.

"They will exchange views on the development of the tragic situation in Syria and ways to end the bloodbath," a diplomatic source told the paper.

The gathering of the "contact group" on Syria -- an initiative by President Mohamed Mursi -- follows preparatory talks a week ago in the Egyptian capital held by lower-ranking officials from the four countries' foreign ministries.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi was also to meet separately with Mursi during his visit to Cairo, Iran's official news agency IRNA reported.

Salehi told Iran's ISNA news agency before leaving Tehran on Monday that Tehran would be setting out its "clear" position on its ally Syria.

"We are very hopeful given that four important countries of the region are gathered to discuss one of the sensitive issues of the region," he was quoted as saying.

The very fact the meeting was being held was "a positive step," he said, "and we hope that its results will correspond to the interests of all the people of the region, and to peace and stability."

Salehi reaffirmed that Iran was looking to expand the group to include allies Iraq and Venezuela.

In Cairo, the diplomatic source speaking to Al-Ahram said that the group was "open to any positive contribution from other parties in the future."

As it stands, Iran is the odd member out in the regional quartet.

It staunchly supports Syrian President Bashar Assad, in contrast with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey which are all calling for his ouster.

On Sunday, its Revolutionary Guards admitted that members of its elite Quds Force were present in Syria, but the Guards chief stressed their role was purely advisory and that Iran did not have a military presence.

The Guards commander, General Mohammed Ali Jafari, also said it was undecided whether Iran would jump in militarily to help out Syria should it be attacked.

He repeated Tehran's allegations that "other countries" -- referring to Western and Gulf Arab states -- were providing material backing to Syrian rebels.

Brahimi was on Monday to hold talks with Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi to brief him on his four-day visit to Syria that ended Sunday, during which he met Assad and spoke by Internet with Free Syrian Army rebel commanders.

One of those commanders, Colonel Abdel Jabbar al-Okaidi, told AFP: "We are sure that Brahimi will fail like the other envoys before him."

Brahimi this month took over as peace envoy from former UN chief Kofi Annan, who stepped down amid discord and acrimony in the UN Security Council over how to tackle the conflict in Syria.

The death toll from the 18-month-old conflict has risen to more than 27,000 people, according to a tally of activists' counts. The United Nations puts the toll at 20,000.

More than 250,000 Syrians have fled the violence to neighboring countries.

 
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