UAE reopens Damascus embassy after seven years

Workers cleaning the metal plaque outside the United Arab Emirates embassy in Damascus, Syria. According to an Emirati statement, an acting charge d'affaires has already started working and the UAE was keen to put relations back on their normal track
Workers cleaning the metal plaque outside the United Arab Emirates embassy in Damascus, Syria. According to an Emirati statement, an acting charge d'affaires has already started working and the UAE was keen to put relations back on their normal track.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

DAMASCUS • The United Arab Emirates has reopened its embassy in Damascus, the latest sign of efforts to bring the Syrian government back into the Arab fold.

The UAE broke ties with Syria in February 2012 as the repression of nationwide protests demanding regime change was escalating into a devastating war. Nearly seven years later, the Emirati flag was raised at a ceremony attended by diplomats and journalists on Thursday.

An acting charge d'affaires has already started working, an Emirati statement said, stressing that the UAE was "keen to put relations back on their normal track". It said that the resumption of ties aimed to "support the sovereignty and independence of Syria" and face "the dangers of regional interferences".

Rumours of the Emirati embassy reopening had circulated in recent days as renovation work was spotted getting under way at the building. A visit to Damascus by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir earlier this month had been interpreted by some observers as a sign of regional efforts to end Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's diplomatic isolation.

A few hours after the UAE's announcement, Bahrain signalled its intention to reopen its embassy in Damascus, which has been closed since March 2012. The Gulf state's foreign ministry said it was "anxious to continue relations" with Syria and wants "to strengthen the Arab role and reactivate it to preserve the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria and prevent the risk of regional interference in its affairs".

Syria was suspended from the Arab League in 2011 as the death toll was escalating and several regional powers bet on President Assad's demise. The conflict has now killed more than 360,000 people.

Mr Assad's seat at the helm, which he inherited from his father in 2000, appeared to be hanging by a thread until Russia's 2015 military intervention turned things around.

Government forces and allied militia have since steadily regained significant ground. They now firmly control the Damascus region and several key trade routes in the country. The past few days have seen a flurry of diplomatic activity that looks set to continue until the next summit of the Arab League, due in Tunis in March.

"Recent discussions on this issue have not yielded a consensus," Mr Hossam Zaki, the league's deputy secretary-general, told reporters in Cairo on Monday. "This does not rule out a possible change of the Arab position in the future."

With military operations winding down in several parts of the country and the capital fully secure, Damascus is also working on breaking its physical isolation.

Trade with Jordan resumed in recent weeks after the reopening of a border crossing and Thursday saw the first commercial flight to Tunisia in years. A Cham Wings Airlines jet completed the first flight between the two countries since 2011.

It is not yet clear if more Arab countries, several of which were accused by Mr Assad of once supporting extremist militants and rebels, will follow in the UAE's footsteps.

The UAE and Bahrain are two of six Gulf Cooperation Council nations that took a tough stance on Damascus in 2012 and eventually recognised an opposition umbrella group as the representative of Syria.

Warming up to Mr Assad is seen by some regional powers as a way of wooing Syria away from the exclusive regional influence of Iran.

"An Arab role in Syria has become even more necessary to face the regional expansionism of Iran and Turkey," said UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash.

Teheran has been a staunch supporter of Mr Assad's government and has expanded its military footprint in Syria throughout the course of the conflict.

Last week's announcement by the White House that United States troops would be pulled out also cleared the path for Turkey to muscle in on Kurdish areas in north-eastern Syria.

US President Donald Trump had said Saudi Arabia, Iran's regional archfoe, had agreed to finance Syria's huge reconstruction needs. "Saudi Arabia has now agreed to spend the necessary money needed to help rebuild Syria, instead of the US," he said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2018, with the headline 'UAE reopens Damascus embassy after seven years'. Print Edition | Subscribe