CAIRO/DAMASCUS: A Middle Eastern “quartet” tasked with discussing the Syrian crisis met Monday – minus one member – and warned against expectations of a quick solution to the revolt against the Syrian regime.
The foreign ministers of Egypt, Iran and Turkey met in Cairo for an inaugural session of the quartet, which was missing participation by Saudi Arabia.
The “contact group” of Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia was assembled at Egypt’s behest but a spokesman for President Mohammad Mursi and an Arab League official both said the Saudi foreign minister was staying away for health reasons.
After their meeting, Egyptian Foreign Minister Kamel Amr said it was “too early to talk about a specific plan” by the group, while Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said he and his counterparts were engaged in “efforts to arrive at a common vision” on solving the Syrian crisis. They are scheduled to meet again on Sept. 25.
Iran’s Ali Akbar Salehi said the group’s efforts would be coordinated with those of U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
The meeting was marred by the absence of Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, who underwent surgery last month, keeping him away from official business. However, he has been represented at international meetings by Deputy Foreign Minister Prince Abdul-Aziz bin Abdullah.
Diplomats and Western officials have been skeptical that the group can reach any tangible deal, particularly when it includes both Saudi Arabia and Iran, which have tussled for influence in conflicts across the Middle East.
Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have all demanded that Syrian President Bashar Assad step down, while Iran is his main ally and accuses states including Saudi Arabia and Turkey of helping the rebels who are fighting to topple him.
Against that backdrop, some analysts said Egypt may itself not have expected much from the group and that Mursi’s main aim may have been to put Cairo back on the map as a regional power broker.
Mursi was said to have offered a package of incentives for Tehran, including the restoration of full diplomatic ties and efforts toward reconciliation with wealthy Gulf nations – a significant diplomatic prize for the Islamic Republic, especially as it comes under mounting pressure over its disputed nuclear program.
One ambassador to the Arab League said it was “not possible for regional states to succeed in solving this [Syrian] file in light of the differences between Russia and China on one side and the U.S. and the West on the other.”
China and Russia have vetoed Western- and Arab-backed U.N. Security Council resolutions intended to raise pressure on Assad to halt the violence and engage in talks on a peaceful solution.
Brahimi was in Cairo after making his first trip to Damascus in his new post, holding a private meeting with Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby in the latter’s home.
Brahimi told Reuters that his visit to Damascus made him “form an inclusive image about the situation in Syria that confirmed that the situation is extremely dangerous and escalating.”
Brahimi said he would next go to New York, where he would report to the U.N. Security Council and some Arab ministers who will be there to attend the U.N. General Assembly meeting that starts Tuesday. He said he would then return to Syria, without specifying precisely when.
The envoy is scheduled to visit Tuesday the Altinozu refugee camp in Turkey’s Hatay province near the Syrian border, a Turkish official said.
For his part, Davutoglu said Brahimi should have a different mandate from Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary-general who quit as Syria envoy complaining about the impasse at the Security Council.
“He must not allow Assad to buy more time with this type of mission,” said Davutoglu, who held talks with Mursi in Cairo. “Assad misused Kofi Annan’s mission to increase pressure on people. Brahimi shouldn’t give Assad this chance.”
In Syria, fighting raged in the city of Aleppo as the strategic neighborhood of Midan was “under the control of the army,” a military official told AFP, in a report backed up by an AFP correspondent on the ground.
“We came back to our homes when we heard the army controlled Midan, but there was no electricity,” a man said. “We waited for two hours and it didn’t return. We will go back when it is fixed.”
But not all areas were safe and an army checkpoint had been set up near the Midan police station, also retaken by the army, to prevent residents from returning to their homes in the so-called “fourth zone” of the district. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least four rebels had been killed in fighting across the northern city, which has been the scene of battles since July 20.
Clashes erupted near a building of the feared air force intelligence and rebels attacked a military post in New Aleppo as fighting also took place in other parts of the city, the Britain-based Observatory said.
The watchdog also reported that the army shelled the strongly pro-rebel district of Al-Hajar al-Aswad in Damascus in preparation for storming it, with at least one person reportedly killed and several others wounded.
Shelling was also reported in several districts of the central city of Homs, which the army had claimed to have under its control.
In the northwestern province of Idlib, pro-regime gunmen killed three members of the same family in the town of Tamanaa, the watchdog said.
At least 120 people died nationwide Monday, the Observatory said.
Separately, the top American general discussed the Syrian crisis with officials in Ankara Monday, as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized Washington for inaction over the conflict.
General Martin Dempsey’s visit is part of an “operational planning” mechanism established between Turkey and the United States to prepare for the aftermath of the Assad regime’s collapse.
Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with senior Turkish officials, including his counterpart Necdet Ozelwas.
Apart from Syria, he was also expected to discuss a range of other issues during his visit including counter-terrorism and Iran’s nuclear program.
Turkey has floated the idea of a “safe zone” to protect refugees fleeing the violence in Syria but that would require foreign military protection, an idea Washington has rejected.
“The United States is currently not involved in this issue,” Erdogan was quoted as saying Monday in Turkish media, as he criticized the Americans for not fulfilling “what is expected of them.”