Top Arab Lawmakers in Syria for Talks With President Assad

BEIRUT (AP) -- Senior Arab lawmakers were in Syria on Sunday for talks with President Bashar Assad on bringing his country back into the fold of the Arab world. The visit follows a mini-summit in Baghdad that affirmed the Arab League's intentions of having Syria return to the organization despite the country's devastating civil war.

Lawmakers from nine Arab countries, as well as Palestinian representatives, made up the delegation -- reflecting a continuation in the thawing of relations with Assad, who for over a decade has been isolated from most of the region.

Syria was suspended from the Arab League in 2011 after Assad's government cracked down brutally on mass protests against his rule -- an uprising that quickly descended into a brutal civil war. The conflict has killed over 300,000 people and displaced half the country's population of 23 million.

First to arrive in Damascus was Egypt's Parliament Speaker Hanafy el-Gebaly, the most senior Egyptian official to visit Syria in over a decade. Iraq's parliament speaker, Mohammed Halbousi -- among several Arab leaders who have been calling for Syria's return to the Arab League -- headed the delegation.

On Saturday, the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union met in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, after several Arab countries in recent years moved to reestablish ties with Assad.

The process intensified following the massive Feb. 6 earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria and killed more than 47,000 people, including over 1,400 people in government-controlled areas of Syria and more than 2,400 in the rebel-held northwest. The quake further compounded Syria's deep economic crisis.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia are among U.S. allies in the Middle East that delivered earthquake aid to government-held areas in Syria. The United Arab Emirates sent more aid-loaded planes than any other nation, including Syria's key allies Russia and Iran.

El-Gebaly told reporters after landing in Damascus that the Arab delegation was "visiting brotherly Syria to support the Syrian people" after the quake. He cited the joint statement from the Baghdad meeting about the need to begin the process of "bringing Syria back to the Arab fold."

"It's natural that Syria will return some day, God willing, and matters will return to what they once were," he said.