News analysis

Assad comes in from the diplomatic wilderness

WASHINGTON • After the Syrian civil war began in 2011, Damascus became diplomatically isolated from a number of foreign countries. Many closed their embassies or removed their ambassadors because of safety concerns, but some made it clear they were doing so in condemnation of the Syrian government and its leader, President Bashar al-Assad.

"International consensus is that this regime has lost all legitimacy and the only course of action is for Assad to leave and leave now," Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said in 2012 after Ottawa closed its embassy in Damascus.

But after seven years of war, Mr Assad remains in office.

The Syrian government - with the crucial support of its Russian and Iranian allies - has managed to regain control of a vast portion of the country, bringing rebels to the brink of complete defeat.

Now, it looks as if shuttered embassies may be reopening in the Syrian capital as Mr Assad's diplomatic isolation begins to end.

Last Thursday, the United Arab Emirates' flag was raised above a compound in central Damascus, as charge d'affaires Abdul-Hakim Naimi officially reopened the UAE's diplomatic mission in Syria.

In a statement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said "the move underscores the UAE government's keenness to restore relations between the two brotherly countries to their normal course".

After seven years of war, Syria's President Bashar al-Assad remains in office, and Arab states that
had closed their embassies in the country are starting to reopen them. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The next day, Bahrain's Foreign Ministry announced that "work is continuing at its embassy" in Syria, which has been without an ambassador since 2011.

The moves are notable. In particular, the UAE was an active supporter of Syrian opposition groups; it is a key ally of Saudi Arabia, once one of the most vocal critics of the Assad government in the Middle East.

Both the UAE and Bahrain are members of the Arab League, a regional group that suspended Syria's membership in 2011.

Many now think it is only a matter of time before that decision is reversed and Syria's membership is reinstated.

Other than official work at embassies, there have been other signals that Syria is being admitted again to the regional community.

The country's border with Jordan was quietly reopened earlier this year, while Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir became the first Arab League leader to visit Syria in eight years when he visited in December.

In October, Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmad al-Khalifa embraced Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem at a UN meeting, surprising onlookers.

These moves from Arab nations appear to represent a recognition of the Syrian regime's likely victory over the forces that had rebelled against Mr Assad in 2011.

The government now controls all the major cities in Syria and roughly two-thirds of the total territory. President Donald Trump last week announced that US troops would soon withdraw from Syria, effectively leaving other regional powers such as Iran, Turkey and Russia with greater influence.

In its statement about the embassy's reopening, the UAE said the move would "prevent the dangers of regional interference in Syrian affairs".

Bahrain's statement struck a similar message, detailing "the significance of enhancing and activating the Arab role in order to maintain Syria's independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity and avert the hazards of regional interference in its internal affairs and progress".

It is unclear whether major Western nations would follow suit. The only nation in the European Union to have an embassy in Syria now is the Czech Republic.

The Czech embassy has also acted as a protecting power in Syria for the United States, which closed its own embassy there in 2012.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 30, 2018, with the headline 'Assad comes in from the diplomatic wilderness '. Print Edition | Subscribe