Syria’s Assad says ‘understanding’ reached with Arab states

FILE - In this July 20, 2018 file photo, a poster of Syrian President Bashar Assad with Arabic that reads "Welcome in victorious Syria," is displayed on the border between Lebanon and Syria. Assad told a little-known Kuwaiti newspaper that Syria has reached a “major understanding” with other Arab states after years of hostility over the country’s civil war. The interview published Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018, in the Al-Shahed newspaper, was Assad's first with a Gulf newspaper since the war began in 2011. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File)

BEIRUT (AP) — President Bashar Assad told a little-known Kuwaiti newspaper that Syria has reached a “major understanding” with Arab states after years of hostility over the country’s civil war.

The interview in the Al-Shahed newspaper, published Wednesday, was Assad’s first with a Gulf newspaper since the war began in 2011.

Assad doesn’t name the Arab countries but says Arab and Western delegations have begun visiting Syria to prepare for the reopening of diplomatic and other missions. Soon the civil war will be over, Assad told the paper’s publisher, allowing Syria to resume its pivotal role in the region.

Syria’s membership in the 22-member Arab League was suspended in the early days of the war and Arab countries later imposed economic sanctions after they failed to mediate an end to the war.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council have openly supported opposition groups fighting to overthrow Assad since. Kuwait hosted a number of donors’ conferences for aid to Syrians, but it also condemned violence blamed on the Syrian government.

The interview comes on the heels of a surprisingly warm meeting between the Syrian foreign minister and his Bahraini counterpart on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly on Saturday. The meeting turned heads because it featured hugs between the two ministers.

The encounter raised questions about whether the Gulf countries, most of them sworn enemies of Assad’s ally Iran, are reconsidering their relations with Damascus as the war winds down.

Assad, embattled for years, is emerging largely victorious after strong support from Russia and Iran. He now controls over 60 percent of Syria with strong Russian and pro-Iranian military support.

Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, the Bahraini foreign minister, later told Saudi-run Al-Arabiya TV that it was not the first meeting with “my brother” the Syrian minister. But he said it was an unplanned meeting, while other planned ones weren’t caught on camera.

Al Khalifa said the meeting came at a time of serious Arab efforts to “reclaim” a role in resolving the Syrian crisis.

“This meeting comes at this period that is witnessing positive transformations toward having an effective Arab role in the Syrian issue,” Al Khalifa said in the Sunday interview with Al-Arabiya. “Syria is an Arab country. Its people are Arabs and what happens there concerns us before any other nation. It is not correct that regional and international countries are looking into the Syrian issue and not us.”

Al Khalifa seemed to recognize that the Syrian government is here to stay.

“The Syrian government is the Syrian government,” he said. “We work with states — even if we disagree with them — and not with those who bring down those states.”

Assad praises Kuwait’s position regarding Syria in the interview with Al-Shahed, calling its leader “a problem solver.”

Al-Shahed’s editor in chief is one of the many members of the extended Kuwaiti royal family. The paper had been temporarily shut down twice in 2010, and 2014 for insulting the judiciary and the public prosecutor and for publishing false news. Its editor in chief was sentenced to three months in 2010.

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Associated Press writer Hussain al-Qatari in Kuwait City contributed to this report.

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