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Iraqi PM al-Sudani visits Syria to normalize relations

July 16, 2023

Although Baghdad maintained diplomatic ties with Syria during the civil war, no Iraqi prime minister has visited Damascus for over a decade.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (right) welcomes Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed al-Sudani (left) in Damascus
Iraqi PM Muhammad al-Sudani (l) said Baghdad was trying to 'find solutions' for sanctions against SyriaImage: Syrian Presidency/APAimages/IMAGO

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani traveled to Syria's capital Damascus on Sunday and met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assadto kick off a two-day diplomatic trip.

Assad said the visit marked a "practical leap" in relations between the two countries.

Al-Sudani and his high-ranking delegation were treated to a military welcome by the Syrian strongman. Despite the fact that Iraq is one of only a few countries to maintain ties with Syria, the official visit is the first by an Iraqi prime minister in more than a decade.

Damascus was expelled from the 22-member Arab League in 2011, over its abuses of pro-democracy demonstrators. That crackdown would become the catalyst for the country's brutal civil war.

Syria was allowed back into the bloc this May. Al-Sudani's two-day visit is only the latest indicator that surrounding countries are leaving behind the policy of isolation aimed at the Assad regime.

Syrian producers behind amphetamine Captagon

On the first day of the visit, the Iraqi prime minister and the Syrian president discussed fighting drug trade and terrorism, but also the return of Syrian refugees and the lifting of Western sanctions.

"We need more coordination at the level of security agencies, particularly in the border areas," said al-Sudani, speaking alongside Assad during a press conference.

Al-Sudani on Sunday reiterated Iraq's support for Syrian control of the entire country.

In 2014, the "Islamic State" militia took control of large swaths of Iraq and Syria. The group was eventually defeated in Iraq in 2017 and Syria in 2019 and is no longer controlling any territory. However, members of the terrorist group living in the area still carry out frequent deadly attacks.

"We are facing several challenges, first and foremost, that of terrorism," said Assad during the press conference.

Syria is also struggling to control its border, with the trade flourishing during the 12 years of deadly civil war. The country is now considered a producing hub for  amphetamine Captagon,.

Iraq trying to get Syria back in the fold

In Damascus, Iraq's al-Sudani said that Baghdad "worked hard to bring Syria back into the Arab League and its natural environment."

"We are seeking to redress the Syrian economy and find solutions to the consequences of the war," he said in reference to efforts to lift Western sanctions on Damascus.

Al-Sudani also made note of efforts to repatriate Syrian refugees.

"We are interested in working through official and government channels to solve the issue of refugees and guarantee a safe return for them as soon as the situation becomes stable in places where they reside."

The war in Syria has killed some 500,000 people and displaced more than half of the country's population of 23 million.

Roughly 250,000 Syrian refugees currently live in Iraq.

Syria's Assad welcomed back to Arab League

js/dj (AFP, AP, dpa)