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Iraqi prime minister meets Assad in first Syria visit since 2011

Mohammed Shia al-Sudani discusses a range of issues with the Syrian president including combatting drug trafficking
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad greets Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani in Damascus, 16 July 2023 (Sana/Reuters)

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani has met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus in the first visit by an Iraqi premier to the country since 2011.

The two discussed a range of issues including the security of their shared 600km border and mitigating the impact of drought.

They also agreed to enhance cooperation to reduce drug smuggling.

"I welcome the Iraqi prime minister on this visit, the importance of which comes from the nature of the deep relationship between the two brotherly peoples," said Assad, speaking at the joint press conference.

"This visit is important to take practical steps to strengthen bilateral relations, particularly in light of international circumstances and common challenges, especially the fight against terrorism."

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Sudani said Iraq supported the lifting of sanctions on Syria, which have choked the country's economy since the beginning of the civil war in 2011.

Baghdad and Damascus, which have close economic, military and political ties to regional heavyweight Iran, maintained relations throughout the civil war even as other Arab states withdrew their ambassadors and closed their embassies in Syria.

The neighbouring countries, along with Shia armed groups backed by Iran, cooperated in the fight against the Islamic State militant group, which at one point controlled more than a third of Iraq and Syria.

Farhad Alaaldin, foreign affairs adviser to the prime minister, said before the meeting that Sudani was set to discuss combatting the flow of the amphetamine captagon and possibilities for reopening a Mediterranean oil export pipeline, which could help Iraq diversify its export routes.

Regional diplomacy

Sudani's visit comes as other countries, including Saudi Arabia, rebuild relations with Damascus after years of tension.

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Syria was suspended from the Arab League in 2011 over Assad's brutal crackdown on protests, and several Gulf states supported the armed opposition to his rule.

But as Assad regained control of most of the country, with military and economic support from Russia and Iran, Syria was readmitted to the Arab League in May.

Regional countries have been seeking dialogue with him to end drug smuggling and to return millions of refugees.

Syria has agreed to help end drug trafficking across its borders with Jordan and Iraq.

Top Syrian officials and relatives of Assad have been put on sanctions lists in recent months in the United States, United Kingdom and European Union over their alleged ties to the trade.

The Syrian government denies involvement in the drug trade.

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