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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 October 2018

Assad claims Arab states and West beginning Damascus re-engagement 

US and EU insistent that assistance in reconstruction needs political transition first 

An image of Syria's President Bashar Al Assad on a car's windscreen as Hezbollah supporters celebrate. Reuters, file 
An image of Syria's President Bashar Al Assad on a car's windscreen as Hezbollah supporters celebrate. Reuters, file 

President Bashar Al Assad has told a Kuwaiti newspaper that Syria has reached a "major understanding" with other Arab states after years of hostility over the country's civil war.

The interview in the Al Shahed newspaper, published Wednesday, was Al Assad's first with a Gulf newspaper since the war began in 2011.

He does not name the Arab countries, but says Arab and Western delegations have begun visiting Syria to prepare for the reopening of diplomatic and other missions.

The ostracised Assad regime and its backers in Moscow and Tehran have been calling for the international community to re-engage with Damascus, drop sanctions and re-establish links. Largely they are looking for Western assistance in rebuilding the shattered country after years of war – a task Iran and Russia do not have the financial capacity to do alone.

However, a reluctant EU and US say they are unwilling to offer money for rebuilding without meaningful political transition – in effect their call for Al Assad to step down from the presidency remains unchanged.

"Assad won the war, we have to state this. But he hasn't won the peace," France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in early September.

Without this reform, it’s unlikely many states will reopen substantial diplomatic operations in Damascus.

In the Middle East, Al Assad’s relations are more contentious.

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Syria's membership in the 22-member Arab League was suspended in the early days of the war, and Arab countries later imposed economic sanctions.

Numerous states backed opposition groups fighting against the regime and concerns about Damascus’ cosy relationship with Tehran is of great concern, especially in the Gulf.

However, at last week’s United Nations General Assembly, Bahraini foreign minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed bin Mohammed Al Khalifa met his Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem for the first time in years.

Pictures of the pair’s warm embrace hit social media and a few days later he went on Al Arabiya to explain the meeting.

"The meeting was unplanned and it wasn't the first time we meet since the outbreak of the Syrian war," Sheikh Khalid insisted.

The minister stressed that it comes "at a time where a serious Arab movement is aiming to reclaim the Arab role in the Syrian crisis.

“The Syrian government is the government of Syria, it is the rule in Syria. We work with states, even if we disagree with them and we don’t work with those that bring down those states," Sheikh Khalifa said.

Long before the UN meeting, UAE Minister of State for Gulf Affairs Anwar Gargash told The National in June that he regretted Syria’s suspension from the Arab League as it had shut off a major conduit for regional voices in pushing for peace talks and a negotiated settlement to the conflict.

He said that Arab states had been left with the stalled UN talks in Geneva as their only seat at the table while Russia, Iran and now Turkey negotiated the future of Syria.

Dr Gargash said that given the state of affairs it wasn’t politically possible to readmit Syria to the Arab League.