FILE - In this file photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA Dec. 16, 2018, Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, meets with Sudan’s President Omar Bashir in Damascus, Syria. Syria said the United Arab Emirates will reopen its embassy in Damascus on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018, for the first time in seven years, a reflection of improved relations between President Bashar Assad and some of his Arab foes as the war winds down. Bashir became the first Arab head of state to visit Syria since the start of the war. (SANA via AP, File)

UAE reopens its embassy in Damascus, another sign Assad has won Syria’s civil war

BEIRUT —The United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy in Damascus on Thursday, marking the first official acknowledgment by regional adversaries of Syrian President Bashar Assad that he has won the almost eight-year civil war to dislodge him.

The embassy was shuttered in February 2012, almost a year into a crisis that began with Arab Spring-inspired protests against Assad’s rule and metastasized into a bloody sectarian conflict that killed hundreds of thousands, made millions of others refugees and laid waste to vast areas of the country.

A number of Arab states also closed their embassies in the months following Syria’s suspension from the Arab League in November 2011, with leaders calling on Assad to leave power. Others, including Oman and Egypt, kept their diplomatic missions open.

Far from leaving, Assad is now at his strongest since the crisis began. Behind that cold truth is the lure of hundreds of billions of dollars in reconstruction projects needed to rebuild the country.

News crews congregated on the embassy’s street in Damascus’ upscale Abu Remmaneh district on Thursday afternoon (it too had been closed to traffic for more than six years), as diplomatic cars slid to a halt before the gates for officials to attend a ceremony that culminated with the raising of the Emirates flag on the embassy grounds.

“Syria is back to the Arab world and it will return with power,” said UAE Charge d’affaires Abdul Hakim Nuaimi in an interview with Syrian reporters in front of the embassy.

“This is a call to restore relations with Syria and opening the embassies of other Arab nations.”

Later, the UAE Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying the embassy had resumed work.

The reopening, the statement continued, confirmed the UAE’s desire to “restore relations between the two brotherly nations to their natural course,” with the aim of boosting Arab states’ role in “supporting the independence and sovereignty of Syria” and to “avoid the risk of regional interventions.”

The ambassador and other staff will be arriving in the first week of the new year, said one Syrian diplomatic official who withheld his name because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

There were also reports that Bahrain’s embassy would reopen next week.

For weeks, cleanup crews had been seen on the embassy’s grounds, fueling rumors that a restoration of relations between the two countries was imminent.

A visit to Damascus earlier this month by Sudanese President Omar Bashir, who has strong ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, was also seen as an overture to the Syrian leader. And last week, Syrian intelligence chief Ali Mamlouk paid a rare visit to Cairo.

Yet Thursday’s reopening represents a significant victory for Assad, who had fought for years against rebel factions receiving weapons and material support from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and, to a lesser degree, the UAE.

All three countries were also involved in CIA-led logistics hubs that trained and equipped opposition fighters.

That support has been cut as rebel forces lost ground over the last two years to successive Russian- and Iranian-backed onslaughts, with Assad vowing to regain control over “every inch of Syria.”

He still faces Turkish-controlled militants in the country’s north as well as Kurds in the northeast backed by the U.S.

Kurdish forces, however, are now in peril in the wake of President Donald Trump’s announcement that the U.S. plans to withdraw its approximately 2,000 troops from Syria and give Turkey a greater role in northern part of the country.

That move has raised fears in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates; both are vying with Turkey for regional influence and want to see Iran ousted from Syria.

“The Arab role in Syria has become more necessary due to Iranian and Turkish transgressions,” tweeted the UAE’s foreign minister, Anwar Gargash, on Thursday.

But the opening of the UAE Embassy also symbolized an acknowledgment that “Assad and his regime would continue,” said Abdul Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based pan-Arab news site Rai Al-Youm.

“It means the Arab revolutions of seven years ago are over,” he said.


(c)2018 Los Angeles Times

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PHOTO (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194): SYRIA-UAE

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