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Syria's Assad visits UAE as Arab isolation eases

March 19, 2023

Last month's deadly earthquakes sped up efforts by Arab nations to reconcile with Damascus after years of civil war. President Bashar Assad needs international help to rebuild his country but many roadblocks remain.

Emirati President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan welcoming his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad in Abu Dhabi on March 19, 2023
Bashar Assad has made three trips to the UAE over the past yearImage: Syrian Presidency/apaimages/IMAGO

Syrian President Bashar Assad on Sunday arrived in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — his second trip to the Gulf in a month — in an attempt to restore ties with his country's Arab neighbors.

Last month's earthquakes which killed tens of thousands of people in Syria and Turkey, spurred renewed efforts to bring Damascus back into the Arab fold after ostracism that began with the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011.

Assad made a similar visit to Oman last month.

What happened in Abu Dhabi?

UAE president Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan greeted Assad and his wife Asma in the capital, Abu Dhabi, the official news agency WAM said, before high-level meetings at the presidential palace.

The discussions "explored ways of enhancing cooperation to accelerate stability and progress in Syria and the region," the Emirati president said in a statement.

"Syria has been absent from its brothers for too long, and the time has come for it to return to them and to its Arab surroundings," WAM cited Mohamed as telling Assad.

The Emirati president called for efforts to facilitate the repatriation of Syrian refugees and backed engagement between Syria and Turkey, which has for years backed rebels fighting Assad's government. 

Assad, meanwhile praised the UAE's role in boosting ties between Arab countries, according to a statement by the Syrian presidency.

He said that relations with Arab states should be "fraternal" and said the severing of ties had been an "incorrect principle in politics."

2011 crackdown led to Assad's isolation

The UAE restored relations with Syria four years ago, having cut ties around the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, which erupted when Assad's government brutally suppress pro-democracy protesters.

Syria's neighbors denounced the use of excessive military force to quell the uprising, prompting Damascus' expulsion from the Cairo-based Arab League.  

Sunday's visit was Assad's third to the UAE since the war broke out. The first was in March last year, followed by a second in January.

The latest trip comes days after Assad traveled to Russia — a major military ally in the civil war —  for talks with President Vladimir Putin.

Quakes offered opportunity for rapprochement

International sympathy following the quakes appears to have sped up the regional reconciliation that had been brewing for years.

The UAE pledged more than $100 million in quake assistance — by far the largest sum from any single nation.

Syrian quake victims have also been transferred to Emirati hospitals.

Last month, the UAE's foreign minister was the first to visit Damascus following the disaster.

Several other Arab officials have since met with Assad in a gesture of solidarity.

A view of a damaged mosque in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake, in Idlib province, Syria on February 24, 2023
Last month's earthquakes killed more than 7,200 people in northern SyriaImage: KHALIL ASHAWI/REUTERS

Emirati analyst Abdulkhaleq Abdulla said Abu Dhabi "is convinced, along with many Arab states, that the time has come to reconcile with Assad ... and see Syria return to the Arab League and the Arab fold".

"The UAE is spearheading efforts to reconcile with enemies of the past and transform them into the friends of tomorrow," Abdulla told Agence France-Presse.

Saudi Arabia's foreign minister also noted last month a consensus was building for a new approach to address humanitarian crises in Syria including the quakes.

The push for rapprochement comes on the heels of a Chinese-brokered deal earlier this month to end a seven-year diplomatic rupture between regional powerhouses Iran and Saudi Arabia, who had backed rival sides in the Syrian conflict.

Turkey-Syria earthquakes: After the great destruction

Assad needs global funds to rebuild Syria 

Syria's real gross domestic product is expected to contract by 5.5% in 2023 following the quakes, according to the World Bank.

Physical damages are estimated at $3.7 billion and economic losses at $1.5 billion. That's on top of the preexisting damages from 12 years of war.

Damascus needs international support to help rebuild the battered country and is counting on regional reconciliation to help unlock those funds.

However, Assad's government has yet to implement UN Security Council resolution 2254 adopted in December 2015 as a road map to peace.

Acceptance of the road map is a key demand of the United States and the European Union for normalizing relations with Damascus.

mm/msh (AFP, AP, dpa)