Turkey has praised a regional meeting on Syria, saying it was significant that major powers in the Middle East are now taking action to resolve the crisis within the region, even though the initiative was off to a bad start due to what appeared to be a Saudi veto.
"Nobody should expect from one meeting an immediate action plan which we agree upon and could be presented to others," Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said during a news conference in Cairo late on Monday evening, after what had originally been planned to be a quartet meeting of Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia on Syria. Davutoğlu said what counted was "regional ownership" of the crisis.
In addition to Davutoğlu, the foreign ministers of Iran and Egypt were present during the meeting -- an initiative by Egypt's new president, Mohammed Morsi, who, analysts say, is looking to make his mark with what he has described as a balanced Egyptian foreign policy.
Egyptian officials gave conflicting reasons for the absence of Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal. They did not say why no one else came in his place. It was initially suggested that Saudi Arabia would send its deputy foreign minister to the meeting in Cairo.
The Saudi minister underwent surgery last month, keeping him away from official business, but he has been represented at international meetings by Deputy Foreign Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah. Egyptian presidential spokesman Yasser Ali and an Arab League official both said Faisal was staying away for health reasons. But Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr said the absence was due to previously arranged engagements. There was no immediate comment from Saudi Arabia, which attended a preparatory meeting last week.
Saudi Arabia, however, did send the deputy to Cairo last week to attend a preparatory session for Monday's meeting, and the kingdom remains part of the talks.
Sources close to the meeting told Today's Zaman that Saudi officials appeared to have been irritated by what they perceived as Iranian attempts to stall the initiative. Iran has suggested that other countries, such as Iraq and Venezuela, should also join the initiative, but this proposal has been dismissed by Saudi Arabia, which said the Gulf Cooperation Council -- a group known to be an Assad opponent -- should then be invited as well.
But Turkish officials say it is too early to say the initiative has failed, saying the fact that regional countries are getting involved in efforts to end the Syrian crisis should not be underestimated. An official, speaking on condition of anonymity, particularly highlighted the significance of Iranian participation in the talks, saying this in itself is a commitment on the part of Tehran that it is ready to be a part of efforts for a solution in Syria.
Diplomats and Western officials have been skeptical that the group can reach any tangible deal on defusing Syria's civil war, citing rivalry and mistrust between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shiite Muslim Iran as one significant stumbling block.
Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have all demanded that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down, while Iran has accused 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 Egyptian President Morsi's main aim may have been to put Cairo back on the map as a regional power broker.
"To expect a quick solution from one meeting is unrealistic. We must be patient. But I confirm to you that the things we agree on are greater than our differences," Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said during the news conference. "Everyone confirmed the need to bring about a peaceful solution," he added, reiterating what he described as Tehran's longstanding position that the Syrian government must meet the demands of the Syrian people but a solution could not be imposed from outside.
While the Turkish foreign minister stressed that the ultimate goal should be "a strong Syria" based on the "legitimate rights and demands of the Syrian people," Salehi said, "The solution in Syria should be a Syrian solution not imposed from the outside."
The contact group decided to meet again in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr said after the Cairo meeting during the news conference, a joint appearance with Davutoğlu and Salehi.
The Cairo meeting came as Western countries got more cautious about getting involved in the Syrian crisis amid worries of growing extremist and sectarian forces within the anti-Assad opposition. In remarks this weekend, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the US was “not yet involved” in efforts to end the crisis in Syria, saying Russia and Iran were more “influential” at the moment.
He said Turkey wanted to try every option to bring an end to the crisis and hence “we will see what this [the Egyptian initiative] will bring about.”
China and Russia have vetoed Western- and Arab-backed UN Security Council resolutions intended to raise pressure on Assad to halt the violence and engage in talks on a peaceful solution.
The UN-Arab League mediator on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, also visited Cairo on Monday after making his first trip to Damascus in his new post. Brahimi met privately with Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby in Elaraby's home in Cairo.