CAIRO — Mideast heavyweights had a first high-level meeting in Cairo on Monday as part of newly-formed quartet tasked to end Syria's civil war, cautioning that a solution would not come easy but that common ground exists between Damascus' staunchest regional ally and its opponents.
The gathering was the first time foreign ministers from the "Islamic Quartet" met for the dialogue as part of an initiative launched by Egypt's new Islamist president Mohammed Morsi.
"Nobody should expect from one meeting an immediate action plan which we agree upon and could be presented to others," said Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, adding that what counted was "regional ownership" of the crisis.
Davutoglu was speaking to reporters in a press conference alongside his Egyptian and Iranian counterparts after the meeting in Cairo's Foreign Ministry.
The four-nation group brings together three supporters of the Syrian rebellion — Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt — with the Syrian regime's top regional ally, Iran.
The U.N.'s special envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Ibrahimi, and Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby had discussed Ibrahimi's three-day trip to Syria over the weekend, where he met Syrian President Bashar Assad, before meeting the ministers for dinner.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr also acknowledged that a plan had not emerged from Monday night's meeting, "but there is discussion about this."
Speaking in Arabic, the Iranian foreign minister praised Egypt for its own successful uprising, which ousted the country's longtime authoritarian leader last year and helped spark Syria's own revolt.
"The common ground between us is more than our differences," Ali Akbar Salehi said. "Finding a peaceful solution is important."
While the Turkish foreign minister stressed that the ultimate goal should be "a strong Syria" based on the "legitimate rights and demands of the Syrian people," Salehi said "the solution in Syria should be a Syrian solution," not "imposed from the outside."
Asked whether the Shiite Muslim country had sent military forces to Lebanon and Syria, Salehi did not reply. Earlier in the week a top commander of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard said Tehran had sent advisers, the clearest indication to date of Iran's direct assistance to the Syrian regime.
Notably absent was Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, who earlier this month was recovering from abdominal surgery in the United States. Last week, Saudi Arabia said that the 72-year-old foreign minister would spend several weeks in Los Angeles to recover.
It was initially suggested that Saudi Arabia would send its deputy foreign minister to the meeting in Cairo, but the kingdom did not. No explanation was given. Saudi Arabia, though, did send the deputy to Cairo last week to attend a preparatory session for Monday's meeting, and the kingdom remains part of the talks.
Earlier in the day, the Turkish foreign minister met with Egypt's Morsi to discuss the Syrian crisis.
Morsi's Sunni Muslim Brotherhood backers, Egypt's most powerful political group since the revolt, are opposed to Shiite Iran's staunch backing of the Syrian regime and its lethal crackdown on largely Sunni protesters. Assad is a follower of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Turkey, which hosts some 80,000 Syrian refugees, has accused its southern neighbor Syria of "state terrorism" and allowed rebels to use its territory as a base. Saudi Arabia has taken a leading role in supporting the opposition seeking to topple the regime, while Egypt's president has urged Assad to take a lesson from the Arab Spring uprisings that deposed other leaders and step down.
Syria has responded by saying Morsi's comments were "blatant interference in Syrian internal affairs" and accused Turkey of "practicing terrorism against the Syrian people by harboring, supporting and training armed terrorist groups."
Cairo is trying to convince Iran to drop its unquestioned support of Assad in exchange for help in easing Tehran's regional isolation, officials close to the Egyptian presidency said last week.
Morsi was said to have offered a package of incentives for Tehran, including the restoration of full diplomatic ties and efforts toward reconciliation with wealthy Gulf nations — a significant diplomatic prize for the Islamic Republic, especially as it comes under mounting pressure over its disputed nuclear program.
Meanwhile, the carnage shows no sign of abating. Syrian activists say nearly 5,000 people were killed in August, the highest monthly total since the crisis began in March 2011 — bringing the overall death toll from the conflict to some 23,000.