December 28, 2018 / 7:55 AM / 5 months ago

Bahrain says no interruption to diplomatic ties with Syria

DUBAI (Reuters) - Bahrain said on Friday that its embassy in Damascus and the Syrian diplomatic mission in Manama had been operating “without interruption”, a day after the United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy in Syria, which is still suspended from the Arab League.

Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa said in a Twitter post that the kingdom had not broken off diplomatic ties with Syria “despite difficult circumstances” — a reference to Syria’s nearly eight-year-old civil war.

“Syria is a major Arab country in the region, we did not cut ties and it did not do so ... We stand with it in protecting its sovereignty and its territory from any violation,” he tweeted.

It was unclear whether his words and an earlier foreign ministry statement meant the embassy had continued operating throughout the conflict, when most Gulf Arab states — including Saudi Arabia, with which Bahrain is closely aligned — broke off diplomatic ties.

“The Kingdom of Bahrain has announced that work is continuing at its embassy in the brotherly Arab Republic of Syria,” the foreign ministry statement carried by state news agency BNA said.

The reopening on Thursday of the UAE’s diplomatic mission was a boost for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as it and other U.S.-allied Arab states had once backed rebels fighting him. The embassy had been shut since the early months of Syria’s conflict nearly eight years ago.

Other Gulf and Arab states are expected to shift their positions and normalise ties with Assad’s government as concerns grow about Iran’s influence in the region.

Syria’s membership of the Arab League was suspended seven years ago. An Arab diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters last week he believed a majority of members wanted Syria to be readmitted.

The statement from Bahrain’s foreign ministry said it was important that Arab states work to prevent any regional interference in Syria’s internal affairs, to help consolidate security and stability in the country.

BNA also said flights had been operating between Bahrain and Syria without interruption, although again it did not say whether that had been the case throughout the war.

Gulf Arab states were the main backers of armed groups opposed to Assad, but Saudi Arabia and Qatar had the most prominent roles in the Syrian war. Emirati support has been associated with groups opposed to Islamist domination of the uprising, rebel sources in the region have said.

Unlike its neighbours, Oman maintained diplomatic ties with Damascus while Kuwait kept its Syrian embassy open and opposed arming rebels fighting to topple Assad. It has led a humanitarian fundraising campaign for Syria through the United Nations.

After nearly eight years of war, Assad has recovered control of most of Syria with support from Russia, Iran, and Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

His military advances gathered pace this year with the defeat of the last big rebel enclaves near Damascus and recovery of the southwestern region.

Reporting By Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Catherine Evans

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