DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — The Syrian government on Thursday opened the country's first international trade fair since war broke out in 2011, an event hailed by officials as a "victory" and a sign of renewed confidence in the war torn nation after years of war.
The fair is being held in an area few kilometers (miles) away from the rebel-held eastern suburbs of Damascus. The proximity alone underlines Syrian President Bashar Assad's increasingly confident position following significant military gains on the ground in the past year.
According to state-run media, participants from 43 countries are taking part in the fair, which is expected to last for 10 days and promises to attract investors mainly from allies like Russia, China and Iran.
Egypt, South Africa and Belarus are also taking part, and organizers say companies from Britain, France and Germany are participating, apparently in a private capacity.
The Damascus International Fair used to be a high-profile annual event, attracting major investors before the war erupted.
It's reopening is a telling indicator of the mood in the Syrian capital. Hundreds of attendees seated on a red carpet below a stage stacked with fluttering flags of participating counties stood in a minute of silence for those who died in the war. Then the event kicked off with a live orchestra playing the Syrian national anthem.
Assisted by Russian and Iranian forces, Assad has retaken key parts of the country from rebels who have been significantly weakened in the last two years.
His political opponents in the West as well as Gulf countries and Turkey are no longer calling on him to step down, and while battles still rage in the country's north and east, and in pockets around Damascus, Assad's survival — at least in the near term — now appears guaranteed.
"This comeback is an indication that the war in Syria is coming to an end," Samer el-Debs, who heads the Damascus Chamber of Industry, told The Associated Press. "After all what happened, all the economic sanctions against Syria and systematic attempts to destroy Syria, we see that this fair has been reopened."
Syrian official media has celebrated the event as a major victory, citing a full occupancy of all Damascus hotels due to the fair. In a press statement at the opening ceremony, Prime Minister Imad Khamis said the fair is an indication of Syria's recovery and insisted the war waged against Syria could not kill the Syrian people's love for life.
At the Russian pavillon, Roman Khudyakov, a Russian politician, said he was accompanied by a large delegation of Russian businessmen and industrialists to discuss ways of cooperating with the Syrian government.
"We have 10 million Russia tourists who visit Turkey every day and we want to direct some of those to Syria," he said.
The Damascus trade fair, which was first launched in 1954, was among the oldest and most celebrated across the Arab world, attracting Arab and international investors.
It was last held in the summer of 2011, few months after the first protests against the Assad family's decade-old rule erupted as part of the Arab Spring uprisings that swept the Middle East.
Syria's civil war, now in its seventh year, has killed around 450,000 people and displaced around 11 million.
Associated Press writer Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.