Egypt’s top diplomat in Damascus, meets with Syria’s Assad


DAMASCUS, Syria — Egypt’s foreign minister Monday met with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus and promised to deliver more aid to the quake-hit country.

Sameh Shoukry is Egypt’s most senior official to visit Syria since 2011, a day after Cairo’s parliament speaker, Hanafy el-Gebaly, and a delegation of top Arab lawmakers visited Assad in a push to end Syria’s political isolation.

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. The conflict has killed over 300,000 people and displaced half the country’s population of 23 million.

Though several Arab countries began to rekindle ties with Assad in recent years, the process intensified after this month’s massive 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 the war-torn country’s deep economic crisis.

Egypt, Jordan Saudi Arabia are among U.S. allies in the Middle East that have delivered quake 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.

Shoukry told the media after meeting Assad and also his Syrian counterpart, Faisal Mekdad,that Egypt has thus far sent 1,500 tons of humanitarian aid.

“We will continue to provide whatever humanitarian aid we can,” Shoukry said. When asked about why Cairo has not yet normalized ties with Damascus, he responded by saying his visit was “first and foremost humanitarian”.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi spoke with Assad over the phone on less than 48 hours after the earthquake hit, the first time the two had spoken in over a decade. For years, many public figures in Egypt have called on el-Sissi’s government to strengthen relations with Syria. Shoukry has also pushed for Damascus’s return to the Cairo-based Arab League.

Chehayeb reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Jack Jeffrey in Cairo contributed to this report.

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