The United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy in Syria's capital on Thursday for the first time in seven years, a reflection of improved relations between Bashar Assad and some of his Arab foes as the war winds down.
On Thursday afternoon, UAE's charge d'affaires Abdul-Hakim Naimi visited the embassy and witnessed his country's flag being raised again on the compound in central Damascus.
The move provides a major boost to Assad, whose forces have won a series of military victories in recent years with the help of Russia and Iran. Sudan's President Omar Bashir visited Damascus earlier this month, becoming the first Arab head of state to visit Syria since the start of the war.
UAE's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that "the step confirms that the UAE government is keen to restore relations between the two brotherly countries back to normal." It added that the move is "to activate the Arab role in supporting Syria's independence, sovereignty, unity and safety and prevent the dangers of regional intervention in Syria's Arab affairs."
"The opening of our embassy is a first step for the return of other Arab embassies," Naimi told reporters outside the compound.
The United Arab Emirates was a supporter of the Syrian opposition, which is now largely confined to the northern Idlib province after losing its strongholds elsewhere.
Pariah no more?
In October, Assad told a little-known Kuwaiti newspaper that Syria had reached a "major understanding" with Arab states after years of hostility. He did not name the Arab countries in the interview, which was his first with a Gulf paper since the war erupted, but said Arab and Western delegations had begun visiting Syria to prepare for the reopening of diplomatic and other missions.
The interview came on the heels of a surprisingly warm meeting between the Syrian foreign minister and his Bahraini counterpart on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in September. The meeting turned heads because it featured hugs between the two ministers.
The encounter raised questions about whether the Gulf countries, most of them sworn enemies of Assad ally Iran, are reconsidering their relations with Syria.
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.
The UAE recalled its ambassador from Syria in 2011 after the start of the popular uprising against Assad. The Syrian Embassy in the UAE remained open.
Syria was expelled from the 22-member Arab League in 2011. Arab countries have sanctioned Damascus and condemned its use of military force against the opposition.
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