UAE to reopen Damascus embassy on Thursday in boost for Assad

The embassy has been shut since the early months of Syria’s conflict, which erupted in 2011.

Syrian demonstrators hold a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad during a demonstration in the northeastern Syrian Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli on 23 December, 2018, asking for the Syrian army's protection as Turkey threatens to carry out a fresh offensive following the US decision to withdraw their troops. Picture: AFP

BEIRUT - The United Arab Emirate s (UAE) is to reopen its embassy in Damascus on Thursday, a step that would mark a big diplomatic boost for President Bashar al-Assad from a United States (US)-allied Arab state that once funded rebels fighting him.

The embassy has been shut since the early months of Syria’s conflict, which erupted in 2011.

Saudi-owned al Arabiya television confirmed the UAE embassy reopening first reported by Syria’s information ministry. A ministry note to journalists invited them to cover the event at 1:30 pm at the embassy, located in the Abu Rummaneh district of the capital Damascus.

The UAE was one of several regional Arab states that backed armed groups opposed to Assad, though its role was less prominent than Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Turkey, rebel sources have said.

Nearly eight years into the war, Assad has recovered control of the bulk of Syria with critical support from Russia, Iran, and Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

His military advances gathered pace this year with the defeat of the last big rebel enclaves near Damascus and recovery of the southwestern region at the border with Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Earlier this month, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir became the first Arab head of state to visit Damascus since the start of the Syrian conflict, flying into Damascus airport.

The border crossing between Syria and Jordan, another US-ally that backed the rebels, was reopened in October.

The Arab League suspended Syria’s membership in 2011.

An Arab diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters last week he believed a majority wanted Syria to return to the League - with only three or four states expected to oppose this - but there had been no official proposal yet.

Egyptian state-run media have called for Syria to be reinstated. The secretary-general of the Arab League, veteran Egyptian diplomat Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said in April that the decision to suspend Syria had been “hasty”.

Arab state support was funnelled to Syrian rebels through a programme overseen by the US Central Intelligence Agency until President Donald Trump ordered it shut down last year.

The anti-Assad rebels’ last foothold is an arc of northwestern territory abutting the border with Turkey, which still supports them.

In another potential boost to Assad, Trump also last week decided to withdraw US forces that are deployed in areas of northern and eastern Syria in support of Kurdish-led militia.

Damascus has vowed to recoup control of the region currently controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. The area, which includes oil fields, water resources and farmland, amounts to roughly one-quarter of Syria.