The foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates met with Syria’s once widely shunned president in Damascus on Tuesday, sending the clearest signal yet that the Arab world is willing to re-engage with strongman Bashar Assad.
The visit by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan is the first by an Emirati foreign minister since Syria’s civil war erupted in 2011. It comes as some Arab countries are improving ties with Syria. The U.S., a close Emirati partner, promptly criticized the visit, saying it would not support any normalization with Assad’s government.
The rapprochement, however, could serve both sides.
Syria badly needs to boost relations with oil-rich countries as its economy is being strangled by crippling Western sanctions and it faces the task of post-war reconstruction. The UAE is also home to thousands of Syrians who work in the Gulf nation and send money to their relatives at home.
Most Gulf countries, at odds with regional rival Iran, seek warmer ties with Damascus, hoping to peel it away from Tehran. Iran is a traditional ally of Syria and sent advisers and resources to back Assad during the 10-year war.
Syria was expelled from the 22-member Arab League and boycotted by its neighbors after its civil war erupted in 2011. More than 400,000 people have been killed in the conflict which displaced half of Syria’s population. Large parts of Syria have been destroyed and reconstruction would cost tens of billions of dollars.
Arab and Western countries generally blamed Assad for the deadly crackdown on the 2011 protests that evolved into civil war, and supported the opposition in the early days of the conflict.
Several years into the fighting, Iran’s backing for Assad, along with that of Russia, helped the Syrian leader push back the insurgents, who are now confined to a small area of northwestern Syria.
Reducing Iran’s influence in Syria may be a difficult challenge for Gulf countries, said Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding. “It will be almost impossible to shift Iran’s position in Syria in the short term,” he said. “Iran is too well embedded.”
“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 UAE’s state-run WAM news agency said the foreign minister “underlined UAE’s keenness to ensure the security, stability and unity of Syria and its support for all efforts made to end the Syrian crisis.”
Assad’s office said the two sides discussed ways of developing cooperation and investment opportunities. It quoted Assad as praising “the objective and wise stances taken by the United Arab Emirates.” The UAE always stood by the Syrian people, Assad was quoted as saying.
In Washington, the State Department was quick to object to the visit.
“We are concerned by reports of the meeting and the signal it sends,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters. “This administration will not express any support for efforts to normalize or rehabilitate Bashar al-Assad, who is a brutal dictator. We urge states in the region to carefully consider the atrocities that this regime (and) Bashar Assad himself has perpetrated on the Syrian people 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 said Secretary of State Antony Blinken had registered Washington’s disapproval of the trip last week in a meeting with Sheikh Abdullah in Europe.
“We will not normalize or upgrade our diplomatic relations with the Assad regime, nor do we support other countries normalizing or upgrading their relations given the atrocities that this regime has inflicted on its own people,” he said. He added, however, that “we were not taken by surprise” by the visit, suggesting that Blinken’s entreaties had fallen flat.
Last month, the UAE’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed received a telephone call from Assad in which they discussed strengthening relations and cooperation.
The UAE, which initially supported those trying to topple Assad, 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. The two countries also reopened a major border crossing.