UAE envoy’s Syria visit shows Arab world ready to reengage with Assad

Trip by top Emirati diplomat, the first since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, comes as Damascus seeks economic opportunity and Gulf looks to counter Iran

Syrian President Bashar Assad (right) speaks with Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates, in Damascus, Syria, on November 9, 2021. (SANA via AP)
Syrian President Bashar Assad (right) speaks with Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates, in Damascus, Syria, on November 9, 2021. (SANA via AP)

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — The foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates met with Syria’s once widely shunned president in Damascus on Tuesday, sending the strongest signal yet that the Arab world is willing to re-engage with strongman Bashar Assad.

Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s visit is the first by a UAE foreign minister since Syria’s conflict began a decade ago and comes as some Arab countries are improving relations with Syria. The UAE has slowly mended ties with Damascus as the tide of the war has turned in favor of Assad.

Syria was expelled from the 22-member Arab League and boycotted by its neighbors after its civil war erupted in 2011. However, improvement of relations between Syria and oil-rich Arab countries could be a major boost for post-war reconstruction.

The official announcement about the visit from Assad’s office came hours after some Lebanese media outlets reported the visit. It wasn’t clear why they delayed the release of the news.

Syria’s conflict began in March 2011. It has killed more than 400,000 people and displaced half the country’s population. Large parts of Syria have been destroyed and reconstruction would cost tens of billions of dollars.

The UAE is one of several Gulf countries that have recently normalized relations with Israel.

Gulf countries, many of them at odds with Iran, have also sought warmer ties with Damascus, hoping to peel it away from Tehran. Iran, which has historical ties with Syria, has sent advisers and resources to back Assad during the 10-year war.

A Syrian boy rides a bicycle through a devastated part of the old city of Homs, Syria, on February 26, 2016. (Hassan Ammar/AP)

Iran’s backing of Assad in the conflict, along with Russia’s, has helped him tip the balance of power in his favor, leaving insurgents confined to a small part of the country’s northwest.

“It will be almost impossible to shift Iran’s position in Syria in the short term. Iran is too well embedded,” said Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding. “Russia has not succeeded.”

“At best, the Syrian regime may start to play Iran and the UAE off against each other in order to obtain some independent room for maneuver,” he said. Doyle added that other Arab states, wary of being used by Damascus, will be watching to see how the relationship develops.

Sheikh Abdullah headed a large delegation to Damascus, according to Syrian state TV. The foreign minister was earlier in the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, where he met with top officials.

Assad’s office quoted the president as praising “the objective and wise stances taken by the United Arab Emirates.” The UAE always stood by the Syrian people, the president was quoted as saying.

The two sides discussed ways of developing cooperation and investment opportunities, according to Assad’s office.

Last month, the UAE’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed received a telephone call from Assad in which they discussed strengthening relations and cooperation.

Illustrative: A Syrian man walks over a bridge past a campaign poster of President Bashar Assad in the Syrian capital Damascus, on May 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

The UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus in December 2018, but relations remained cold.

In September, Assad called King Abdullah II of Jordan for the first time since Syria’s conflict began in March 2011. The two countries also reopened a major border crossing.

The UAE was a supporter of the Syrian opposition, which is now largely confined to a small corner in northwest Syria after Assad’s forces gained control of much of Syria in recent years.

The visit comes as Syria’s economy is being strangled by crippling Western sanctions, and at a time when Damascus badly needs to boost relations with oil-rich countries. The UAE is home to thousands of Syrians who work in the Gulf nation and send money to their relatives at home.

Arab and Western countries generally blamed Assad for the deadly crackdown on protests that erupted in 2011 and developed into a civil war, and supported the opposition in the early days of the conflict.

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