A flight from Damascus landed in Tunisia’s Habib Bourguiba Airport earlier today, marking the first direct flight between the two countries since the outbreak of Syria’s civil war eight years ago.
Some 150 Syrian tourists were met at the airport by supporters of President Bashar Al-Assad who danced and waved the Tunisian and Syrian flag, in celebration at the apparent mending of ties between the nations.
Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, had supported the Syrian opposition when the war broke out after peaceful protests were brutally repressed by the regime. But relations have warmed as the fighting winds down, with the Syrian government once again in control of most of the country, thanks largely to Russian assistance.
The UAE also announced today that it would be reopening its embassy in Damascus marking another significant diplomatic boost for President Al-Assad. A foreign ministry statement said the move aimed to normalise ties and to curb risks of regional interference in “Arab, Syrian affairs” – an apparent reference to non-Arab Iran, whose support for Al-Assad has been critical to his war effort.
The UAE flag was raised at the embassy, shut since the early months of Syria’s conflict nearly eight years ago. The Emirati Foreign Ministry said its charge d’affaires assumed his duties today; photos from inside the building suggest that some renovation work has been ongoing for some weeks.
Pictures circulating on social media purportedly showing the (defunct) UAE Embassy in Damascus being renovated ahead of a potential resumption of diplomatic ties between the two countries #Syria #UAE pic.twitter.com/5cdwC9nwx6
— Michael A. Horowitz (@michaelh992) December 26, 2018
Tunisia’s attempt at rapprochement is the latest in a series of efforts made by several Arab states over the past few months to mend ties with the Al-Assad regime. Earlier this week notorious Syrian security head Ali Mamlouk made a rare visit to Cairo to meet with his Egyptian counterpart, where the two diplomats reportedly discussed “political, security and counterterrorism issues”.
The visit came just one week after Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir visited Al-Assad in Damascus – the first state visit of any Arab leader since the war broke out in 2011. In a statement, Al-Bashir affirmed the importance of Syria’s sovereignty under its “legitimate leadership”.
Last week, diplomatic sources also revealed that Algerian authorities are interested in joining Iraq and Lebanon in inviting President Al-Assad to attend the Arab League summit scheduled to take place in March next year, seven years after Syria was suspended from the 22-member body. The meeting, set to take place in Tunisia, would see the Assad government officially welcomed back into the fold.
In October, President Al-Assad told a little-known Kuwaiti newspaper that Syria had reached a “major understanding” with Arab states after years of hostility, adding that Arab and Western delegations had started to visit the country to prepare for the reopening of diplomatic missions. A week later, the Nassib border crossing between Jordan and Syria officially opened to civilians and trade for the first time since it was closed three years ago.
The Syrian foreign minister and his Bahraini counterpart had also turned heads in September after they greeted each other with a hug on the side-lines of the UN General Assembly in New York. The encounter raised questions about whether the Gulf countries, most of them sworn enemies of Al-Assad ally Iran, are reconsidering their relations with Syria.
The US has also changed its stance on the Syrian regime; last week US Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey said that Washington is not looking for a “regime change” in Syria, but rather a “different” government, contradicting previous statements that had called for the removal of President Al-Assad.
The war in Syria has killed more than 560,000 people, the vast majority by regime-allied forces. The Al-Assad government has used chemical weapons against civilians on scores of occasions, with tens of thousands in prison facing torture and execution. Despite the regime calling for refugees to return to the country, over one million people are still listed as wanted on government databases, with those refugees who supported the opposition fearing state reprisals.