Assad visits the UAE, the first trip to an Arab country since the start of the war

  • The UAE once supported Assad’s opponents in the Syrian war
  • US says ‘deeply disappointed’ by UAE move
  • Assad visited Iran and Russia only during the war
  • UAE says it wants to strengthen cooperation with Syria

DUBAI/WASHINGTON (March 18) (Reuters) – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad traveled to the United Arab Emirates on Friday in his first visit to an Arab country since the start of the Syrian war in 2011, underscoring improved relations with a US ally. He once supported the rebels who sought to overthrow him.

The Emirates News Agency (WAM) stated that Assad met Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who “stressed that Syria is an essential pillar of Arab security and that the UAE is keen to strengthen cooperation with it.”

A video clip published by the Emirates News Agency (WAM) showed Assad smiling while standing next to Sheikh Mohammed in front of the Syrian and Emirati flags, in addition to gestures and smiling during conversations.

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The visit drew sharp rebuke from Washington, with the State Department saying it was “extremely and turbulently disappointed” with what it described as an apparent attempt to legitimize Assad.

Assad’s only trips outside Syria during the war were Iran and Russia, close allies whose military support helped him turn the tide of confrontation against government-backed opponents including Gulf states allied with the United States.

The Syrian presidency said in a statement that he also met on Friday the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

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The timing of the flight coincided with the eleventh anniversary of the Syrian uprising, which began in March 2011, and at a time when Washington is working globally to unite allies and partners against the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price stressed that Washington still opposes efforts to normalize relations or rehabilitate Assad. He said the United States will not waive or lift sanctions on Syria unless progress is made toward a political solution to the conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands since the outbreak of the uprising against Assad.

“We urge countries considering dealing with the Assad regime to carefully weigh the horrific atrocities the regime has committed against Syrians over the past decade, as well as the regime’s ongoing efforts to deny much of the country access to humanitarian aid and security,” Price added. He said in an email.

Washington expressed its concern in November when the UAE foreign minister visited Damascus and met Assad.

But the Biden administration has eroded its political capital with both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi by disregarding their concerns about regional rival Iran, ending its support for their war in Yemen and imposing conditions on US arms sales to Gulf states. Read more

The Emirates News Agency (WAM) said the two sides stressed “the preservation of Syria’s territorial integrity and the withdrawal of foreign forces” from the fragmented country where Russia, Iran, Turkey and the United States have a military presence.

They also discussed political and humanitarian support for Syria and its people to reach a peaceful solution to all the challenges it faces.

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The Emirates News Agency (WAM) said that Sheikh Mohammed “expressed his hope that this visit would pave the way for the return of good, peace and stability in Syria and the entire region.” She added that Assad briefed him on the latest developments in Syria.

Sheikh Mohammed bid him farewell at the airport.

The meetings were the latest in a series of diplomatic initiatives that signal a shift underway in the Middle East as several Arab countries are reviving ties with Assad.

Signs of rapprochement between Assad and Arab countries have grown in the past year, including a phone call with Jordan’s King Abdullah, another US ally. Read more

Analysts say political and economic considerations loom large for Arab countries seeking closer ties with Assad, including how to counter the influence of Iran and Turkey.

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(covering Moataz Mohamed). Written by Tom Perry and Humira Pamuk; Editing by Franklin Paul, Jonathan Otis and Daniel Wallis

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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