CAIRO (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia stayed away from a meeting on the Syria crisis convened by regional powers on Monday, setting back a forum grouping Iran - President Bashar al-Assad’s main Middle East ally - and his leading opponents in the region.
The “contact group” of Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia arose from an initiative by Cairo, whose new president is looking to make his mark with what he has described as a balanced Egyptian foreign policy.
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 Shi‘ite Muslim Iran as one significant stumbling block.
Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have all demanded that 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 Mohamed Mursi’s main aim may have been to put Cairo back on the map as a regional power broker.
The contact group decided to meet again in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr said after the Cairo meeting during a joint news conference with his Turkish and Iranian counterparts.
“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.
He said the four states had a “great role” to play and could table a proposal that “we hope, God willing, will produce a result that satisfies everyone ... But this needs more talks,” he said. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu spoke of the need for “regional ownership of the issues of our region”.
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.
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.
ENVOY SEES “DANGEROUS AND ESCALATING” SITUATION
Egyptian presidential spokesman Yasser Ali and an Arab League official both said Faisal was staying away for health reasons. But Amr, the foreign minister, said the absence was due to previously arranged engagements.
There was no immediate comment from Saudi Arabia, which attended a preparatory meeting last week.
China and Russia have vetoed Western- and Arab-backed U.N. Security Council resolutions intended to raise pressure on Assad to halt the violence and engage in talks on a peaceful solution.
The U.N.-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.
Brahimi told Reuters that his visit to Damascus made him “form an inclusive image about the situation in Syria that confirmed that the situation is extremely dangerous and escalating”.
Brahimi said he would next go to New York where he would report to the U.N. Security Council and Arab ministers, who will be there to attend the U.N. General Assembly. He said he would then return to Syria, without saying when.
Davutoglu said Brahimi should have a different mandate from Kofi Annan, the ex-U.N. secretary-general who quit in August as Syria envoy. He had complained about the diplomatic deadlock at the Security Council.
“He must not allow Assad to buy more time with this type of mission,” Davutoglu said after meeting Mursi earlier in the day. “Assad misused Kofi Annan’s mission to increase pressure on people. Brahimi shouldn’t give Assad this chance.”
Reporting by Marwa Awad, Youssef Rustom, Edmund Blair and Ayman Samir in Cairo and Yeganeh Torbati in Dubai; Writing by Tom Perry and Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Mark Heinrich