Foreign ministers of the Syria “contact group” were to hold their first high-level meeting on Monday in Cairo, AFP reported Egypt’s foreign ministry as saying.
The top diplomats of “Egypt, Turkey and Iran will meet at the foreign ministry to discuss developments in Syria on the political and humanitarian fronts,” the ministry said in a statement.
The gathering of the “contact group” on Syria -- an initiative by President Mohammed Mursi -- follows preparatory talks a week ago in the Egyptian capital held by lower-ranking officials from the four countries’ foreign ministries.
Saudi Arabia to stay away
Saudi Arabia opted to stay away from a meeting of four regional powers on the Syrian crisis on Monday, adding to a sense that the forum is unlikely to advance the quest for peace.
The ‘contact group’ of Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia was assembled at Egypt’s initiative, but Egypt’s foreign ministry said the Saudi foreign minister was staying away.
Another Egyptian diplomat said the Saudi foreign minister was not coming for health reasons, without saying why no one else was coming in his place.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu also said Saudi Arabia, which attended a preparatory meeting last week, would be absent on Monday, but that it would join in future meetings. There was no immediate Saudi comment.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal had an operation last month, keeping him away from official business, but he has been represented at international meetings by Deputy Foreign Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah.
Diplomats and Western officials have been skeptical that the group can reach any tangible agreement, particularly when it includes both Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, who have tussled for influence in sectarian conflicts across the Middle East.
Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have all demanded that Syrian President Bashar al-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.
International peace envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, who paid a four-day visit to Damascus during which he met President Assad and opposition members, was to join the meeting, an Arab diplomat said.
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, a diplomatic source speaking to the state-owned daily Al-Ahram said that the group was “open to any positive contribution from other parties in the future.”
Brahimi this month took over as peace envoy from former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, who stepped down amid discord and acrimony in the U.N. 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.
West vigilant on arming opposition
Syrian rebels and opposition are increasingly losing ground for support from the West.
While France may be considering arming Syria’s rebels, the U.S. and other Western powers have yet to find opposition figures they genuinely trust as they worry over growing jihadi and sectarian forces.
The attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya’s Benghazi that killed its ambassador and anti-American demonstrations elsewhere this week over an obscure video that ridiculed the Prophet Mohammad might have no Syria links but will make nervous governments even more cautious.
Western officials say there is little doubt a growing number of foreign jihadi fighters are entering the fray, although it is far from clear whether any have direct links to Al-Qaeda. But It is just one worry amongst many.
“This is not a situation where the U.S. can do much to shape what happens,” Mona Yacoubian, a former State Department official and now fellow and Syria expert at the Stimson Center, told Reuters. “There has always been a lot of caution within the Obama Administration on Syria and if anything things are getting more complicated.”
Working with Libya’s initially notoriously disorganized rebels, officials complained, was hard enough; but the opposition to President Assad seems even more diffuse.
That makes policy-making much more complicated and supplying weapons, or even choosing who to talk to, more of a gamble.
“We badly need to identify some political and military leaders who can make clear that they seek a political settlement to bring all fighting to an end,” said one Western official on condition of anonymity. “Without that the bloodletting reinforces the worst aspects of sectarianism and makes a soft landing ever less likely.”
Western states have been on a concerted offensive to push opposition figures towards greater unity, facilitating meetings that range from foreign-based conferences to Internet chats and small border gatherings.
But, beyond pushing in humanitarian aid they fear there is a limited amount they can do to change the situation on the ground.
“It’s a very difficult situation, and the lack of coherence of the opposition is probably the biggest single challenge,” Melissa Dalton, a senior Pentagon adviser on Syria and the Middle East currently on sabbatical as a visiting fellow at the Center for New American Security, told Reuters.
“Given everything that is at stake, the United States clearly cannot do nothing. But there are no good scenarios arising from this conflict, and so the most important strategy for the United States to pursue is mitigating the risks to its interests.”
That meant to prioritize tracking Syria’s chemical weapons, ensuring militant groups inspired by Qaeda were unable to set up safe havens and preventing weapons from falling into the wrong hands, she said. It also meant avoiding doing anything to make matters worse.
Current and former Western officials say their countries have lost confidence in the Syrian National Council, the largely foreign-based body initially courted as a government in waiting. With some of its meetings dissolving into fisticuffs, it is increasingly both too chaotic, too sectarian and simply lacking in a significant support.