UAE to reopen Damascus embassy after 7 years

Damascus (AFP) –


The United Arab Emirates will reopen its embassy in Damascus Thursday, an official said, 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, an information ministry official invited journalists "to cover the reopening of the Emirati embassy in Damascus today".

The Al-Watan newspaper, a Syrian daily close to the government of President Bashar al-Assad, also reported the decision.

Rumours of the Emirati embassy reopening had circulated in recent days as renovation work was spotted getting under way at the building.

The UAE does not have an ambassador to Syria yet but two diplomats are expected to attend Thursday's ceremony.

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 Assad's diplomatic isolation.

- Pariah no more? -

Syria was suspended from the Arab League in November 2011, as the death toll was escalating and several regional powers bet on Assad's demise.

The conflict has now killed more than 360,000 people.

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," 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," he added.

Ali Mamluk, Syria's intelligence chief and a key figure in the Assad regime, travelled to Egypt last week on an official visit.

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.

- Saudi money -

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.

"This trip is the reopening of tourism links between Syria and Tunisia," Moataz Tarbin, the head of the tourism firm that organised the flight, told AFP.

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

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

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

US President Donald Trump claimed on Monday that 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 United States," Trump said on social media.