After the Syrian civil war began in 2011, Damascus became diplomatically isolated from a number of foreign countries. Many closed their embassies or removed their ambassadors because of safety concerns, but some made it clear that they were doing so in condemnation of the Syrian government and its leader, President Bashar al-Assad.
“International consensus is that this regime has lost all legitimacy and the only course of action is for Assad to leave and leave now,” Canada’s foreign affairs minister, John Baird, said in 2012 after Canada closed its embassy in Damascus.
But after seven years of war, Assad remains in office. The Syrian government — with the crucial support of its Russian and Iranian allies — has managed to regain control of a vast portion of the country, bringing rebels to the brink of complete defeat. Now, it looks as if shuttered embassies may be reopening in the Syrian capital as Assad’s diplomatic isolation begins to fall away.
On Thursday, the United Arab Emirates' flag was raised above a compound in central Damascus, as charge d’affaires Abdul-Hakim Naimi officially reopened the country’s diplomatic mission in the country. In a statement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that “the move underscores the UAE government’s keenness to restore relations between the two brotherly countries to their normal course."
The next day, Bahrain’s Foreign Ministry announced that “work is continuing at its embassy” in Syria, which has been without an ambassador since 2011.
The moves are notable. In particular, the UAE was an active supporter of Syrian opposition groups; it is a key ally of Saudi Arabia, once one of the most vocal critics of the Assad government in the Middle East. Both the UAE and Bahrain are members of the Arab League, a regional organization that suspended Syria’s membership in 2011. Many now think it is only a matter of time before that decision is reversed and Syria’s membership is reinstated.
Other than official work at embassies, there have been other signals that Syria is being readmitted to the regional community. The country’s border with Jordan was quietly reopened earlier this year, while Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir became the first Arab League leader to visit Syria in eight years when he visited in December. In October, Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmad al-Khalifa embraced Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem at a U.N. meeting, surprising onlookers.
These moves from Arab nations appear to represent a recognition of the Syrian regime’s likely victory over the forces that had rebelled against Assad in 2011. The government now controls all the major cities in Syria and roughly two-thirds of the total territory. President Trump announced last week that U.S. troops would soon leave the country, effectively leaving other regional powers like Iran, Turkey and Russia with greater influence.
In its statement about the embassy reopening, the UAE Foreign Ministry said that the move would “prevent the dangers of regional interference in Syrian affairs.” Bahrain’s statement struck a similar message, detailing “the significance of enhancing and activating the Arab role in order to maintain Syria’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity and avert the hazards of regional interference in its internal affairs and progress.”
It is unclear whether major Western nations would follow suit. The only nation in the European Union to currently have an embassy in Syria is the Czech Republic. The Czech Embassy has also acted as a protecting power in Syria for the United States, which closed its own embassy there in 2012.