Syria FM Faisal Mekdad discusses aid, illegal drug trade on 'key visit' to Iraq

Mekdad’s visit to Iraq, a key ally, comes weeks after the Syrian regime was readmitted into the Arab League, much to the dismay of the Syrian opposition.

Mekdad discussed Syrian refugees, the captagon drug trade and humanitarian aid with his Iraqi counterpart [Getty]

Syria’s foreign minister on Sunday discussed humanitarian aid and combating the illegal drugs trade with key ally Iraq during a visit to Baghdad as Damascus emerges from years of diplomatic isolation.

The visit by Faisal Mekdad comes weeks after the Arab League agreed to end Syria’s suspension from the 22-member bloc, bringing Bashar al-Assad’s regime back into the regional fold after years of civil war.

Iraq remained an ally of the Syrian regime throughout the wider Arab boycott, never severing relations and maintaining close cooperation during Syria’s civil war, particularly over the fight against the Islamic State group.

Baghdad was “one of the initiators” of Syria’s return to the Arab League, Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein said in a joint press conference with Mekdad.

Damascus’ readmission to the regional body last month was met with criticism from the Syrian opposition, while some countries – notably Morocco and Qatar – have opposed resuming ties with Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The two also discussed the issue of Syrian refugees who fled the country after the war erupted, many of whom now live in Iraq as well as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

“We received about 250,000 refugees,” said Hussein, who added that the majority of them live in camps in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region.

He said the next step would be getting humanitarian aid into Syria, which has been devastated by the war and by a February 6 earthquake that also hit Turkey and killed tens of thousands in both countries.

The quake triggered a flurry of aid efforts and diplomatic moves that helped spur Syria’s reintegration back into the wider Arab region.

Mekdad on Sunday thanked Iraq for its “solidarity” after the quake, also hailing the “progression” of bilateral relations.

“We will continue to cooperate to combat terrorism and eliminate the danger posed by drugs,” he added in a reference to the illegal trade in the stimulant captagon.

Mekdad was also expected to meet Iraqi Prime Minister Mohamed Shia al-Sudani and President Abdul Latif Rashid, Iraqi foreign ministry spokesman Ahmed al-Sahaf told the state news agency.

Drug trade, water scarcity

The Arab League voted on May 7 to readmit Syria after its suspension in 2011 over Assad’s brutal crackdown of peaceful protests that later devolved into an all-out war.

The conflict has killed an estimated 500,000 Syrians and displaced millions more.

At the time, Iraq had abstained from the vote which resulted in Damascus’ suspension.

The two countries share a 600-kilometre (370-mile) porous desert border that has continued to see militant activity even years after the defeat of IS.

The militant group took over large swathes of both countries in 2014, declaring its “caliphate” before it was defeated in 2017 in Iraq and in 2019 in Syria.

Drug trafficking has also proliferated in past years, with the trade of the amphetamine-like drug captagon exploding in the region, much of it across the Syria-Iraq border.

Iraqi guards in March seized over three million captagon pills at the border with Syria.

In addition to security coordination, Baghdad and Damascus continue to coordinate on other key issues including water as both countries face dangerous shortages.

Dam-building in neighbouring countries and climate change impacts have dramatically reduced water flows in both countries, disrupting agriculture and threatening livelihoods amid persistent economic challenges.