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Syria's Assad makes first trip to UAE since start of conflict

Trip marks highest level official contact to date between Syrian leader and an Arab counterpart
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (L) embraces the UAE's de facto ruler Mohammed bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi on 18 March, 2022 (AFP)

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) on Friday, on his first visit to an Arab state since the Syrian war erupted in 2011.

Assad also travelled to Dubai to meet that emirate's leader, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the Syrian presidency said in a statement.

According to the Emirates' state news agency WAM, MBZ and Assad discussed the withdrawal of foreign forces from Syria and humanitarian support for the war-ravaged country.

"Assad in the UAE - solidarity between dictators," tweeted Kristyan Benedict, Amnesty International UK's crisis campaigns manager."

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The meeting marks the clearest signal to date of the ongoing rapprochement between Damascus and regional states.

Jordan's king held a much-publicised phone call with Assad in October, and has lobbied for the lifting of sanctions in Washington so his fragile economy can resume trade with its neighbour.

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But as a regional powerhouse, the UAE has been at the forefront of efforts to rehabilitate the government in Damascus. Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed travelled to Syria in November to meet with Assad, and earlier this summer the two countries resumed direct flights. Syria also had a prominent booth at the 2020 Dubai Expo. 

Syria was expelled from the Arab League and shunned by its neighbours at the start of the country's civil war. Some Gulf powers reportedly saw the conflict as an opportunity to unseat the Assad family, and backed opposition forces during the early years of the conflict.

Now, with fighting having largely subsided and Assad in control of most of the country, Syria's neighbours are recalibrating, driven by concerns over Iranian and Turkish influence, and the economic and security repercussions of leaving the impoverished, war-ravaged state as a pariah on their borders.

At the meeting on Friday, MBZ expressed his hope that "this visit would be the beginning of peace and stability for Syria and the entire region".

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