DAMASCUS (Reuters) - The United Arab Emirates' top diplomat in Syria has praised President Bashar al-Assad for his "wise leadership", in one of the strongest expressions of support yet from a country that once backed Damascus' enemies in the civil war.
The two restored diplomatic ties last year and the UAE's vocal support will be welcome by Assad, who has wrested control of most of his country from rebels and jihadis and is seeking to shed his status as pariah to much of the outside world.
Speaking at a ceremony to mark UAE national day on Dec. 2, UAE charge d'affaires Abdul-Hakim Naimi said he hoped "security and stability prevails throughout the Syrian Arab Republic under the wise leadership of President Bashar Al-Assad.
"Syria-UAE relations are solid, distinct and strong," he added, according to a video posted by Russian broadcaster RT.
The UAE has begun to forge closer ties with Damascus to counter the influence of its rivals Iran and Turkey. Last December it reopened its embassy there, angering Washington, which has sought to keep Assad isolated.
Washington has lobbied Gulf states including the UAE to hold off restoring ties, sources told Reuters earlier this year.
At the ceremony, Syria's deputy foreign minister Faisal Maqdad thanked the UAE for its support.
"We cannot forget that the United Arab Emirates stood by Syria in its war against terrorism," he said.
Earlier in the war UAE supported armed groups opposed to Assad. But its role was less prominent than that of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and mainly centred on ensuring that Islamist forces did not dominate the uprising.
Damascus has restored control over most of the country's territory since support from Russian air strikes began in 2015, tipping the war in Assad's favour.
(Reporting by Kinda Makieh; Writing by Eric Knecht; Editing by Mike Collett-White)