Bahrain says embassy work in Syria continues after UAE move

December 28, 2018 GMT

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Bahrain on Friday announced that “work is continuing at its embassy” in Syria, reflecting a new push by Gulf Arab states to improve relations with President Bashar Assad as the war winds down.

A day earlier, the United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy in Damascus with a flag-raising ceremony before journalists and camera crews. The concerted pronouncements come seven years after several Arab states recalled their ambassadors and Gulf states shuttered their embassies in Syria to isolate Assad. 

The diplomatic thaw comes after the U.S. announced plans to pull its troops from Syria. Gulf states have expressed concern about a growing role for Iran and Turkey in the future of Syria as the U.S. reduces its clout.

Early in the civil war, Gulf Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar rushed to back Sunni fighters battling Assad’s forces. Syria was expelled from the 22-member Arab League in 2011. Arab countries sanctioned Damascus and condemned its use of military force against civilians.

In recent years, however, the Syrian army has won a series of key military victories with the help of Russia and Iran.

In its statement, Bahrain’s Foreign Ministry stressed the importance of continued relations with Syria. The ministry emphasized “the Arab role” in preserving Syria’s independence and preventing dangerous regional intervention in its affairs — an apparent reference to Iran’s strengthened foothold there.

The statement did not give details on whether an ambassador would be reinstated to Damascus or give details on Bahrain’s diplomatic presence in Syria. Bahrain is home to a majority Shiite population and there are direct flights from Manama to Damascus, which is home to Shiite pilgrimage sites.

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.