Syria's Assad Visit to UAE Marks First Arab Trip Since War, Renewed Ties

The visit paid by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the United Arab Emirates marks what is believed to be his first trip to an Arab nation since the outbreak of civil war in his country 11 years ago, sending the strongest signal yet that the leader once isolated from the region was rebuilding international ties.

Upon arriving in Dubai, Assad met Friday with UAE Vice President and Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum at his rest house in Al Marmoom.

A readout released by Assad's office said Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, who is also the ruler of Dubai, "welcomed the visit of President Assad and the accompanying delegation, which comes within the framework of the brotherly relations between the two countries, expressing his sincere wishes for Syria and its people that security and peace prevail throughout the region, and that stability and prosperity prevail throughout the region for the good and development of all."

"The meeting dealt with the overall relations between the two countries and the prospects for expanding the circle of bilateral cooperation," the readout said, "especially at the economic, investment and commercial levels, in a way that lives up to the aspirations of the two brotherly peoples."

Assad also traveled to Al Shati Palace in the capital Abu Dhabi to meet UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

The UAE's de facto ruler was cited as saying that "the visit comes within the framework of the common concern to continue consultation and fraternal coordination between the two countries on various issues, stressing that Syria is an essential pillar of Arab security, and therefore the UAE position is consistent in its support for the unity Syrian territory and its stability, stressing the need for the withdrawal of all foreign forces illegally present on Syrian territory, and expressed the UAE's keenness to enhance cooperation with Syria in areas that achieve the aspirations of the two brotherly peoples."

As for Assad, he was to have "stressed that the UAE is a country that plays a major role in view of the balanced policies that it pursues towards international issues, pointing out that the world is changing and moving for a long time towards a state of instability."

"Therefore, to protect our region, we must continue to adhere to our principles, the sovereignty of our countries and the interests of our peoples," Assad's office quoted him as saying.

The two leaders said to have "discussed brotherly relations, cooperation and joint coordination between the two brotherly countries to achieve their mutual interests and contribute to the consolidation of security and stability in the region," and "exchanged views and the two countries' positions towards all regional and international issues and developments of common interest."

The trip came amid years of warming relations between the two countries and follows UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan's visit to Damascus in December, three years after the UAE announced it would reopen its embassy in the Syrian capital in one of the first signs that Assad was being welcomed back into the Arab fold.

Syria, Assad, UAE, Sheikh, Mohammed, Dubai
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sits with UAE Vice President and Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum at the latter's rest house in Al Marmoom, Dubai on March 18. Presidency of the Syrian Arab Republic

Assad's visit to the UAE also came just three days after the 11th anniversary of the uprising and and subsequent crackdown that sparked the conflict still plaguing Syria. While the government has since regained much of the territory lost to rebels and jihadis, the Syrian leader has been accused of war crimes and human rights abuses, especially from the West, though Damascus rejects the allegations.

Hours after the visit was revealed, State Department spokesperson Ned Price issued a deeply critical response.

"We are profoundly disappointed and troubled by this apparent attempt to legitimize Bashar Al-Assad, who remains responsible and accountable for the death and suffering of countless Syrians, the displacement of more than half of the pre-war Syrian population, and the arbitrary detention and disappearance of over 150,000 Syrian men, women and children," Price said in a statement shared with Newsweek.

Citing earlier statements by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Price said that "we do not support efforts to rehabilitate Assad; and we do not support others normalizing relations. We have been clear about this with our partners."

"We urge states considering engagement with the Assad regime to weigh carefully the horrific atrocities visited by the regime on the Syrians over the last decade," Price said, "as well as the regime's continuing efforts to deny much of the country access to humanitarian aid and security."

The U.S. and a number of European and Middle Eastern nations initially backed the insurgency that sought to oust Assad in 2011, but the rise of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) led to the formation of a U.S.-led coalition to instead focus on targeting the self-styled caliphate that began to consume large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq.

By 2015, the U.S. had aligned itself with a Kurdish-led group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, which now holds up to a third of the country in the northeast, while the government received direct support from Iran and Russia, allowing it to reassert control over other parts of the country.

The opposition has since been relegated to the north, where groups backed by Turkey as well as jihadi forces operate, most significantly in Idlib province, where the past two ISIS leaders have been killed during U.S. raids.

And while inroads with the Arab World have steadily increased in recent years, Syria remains subject to tough U.S. sanctions that have exacerbated the ailing of an economy already beset by war and financial crisis.

Price said that the U.S. "will not lift or waive sanctions and we do not support the reconstruction of Syria until there is irreversible progress toward a political solution, which we have not seen. "

"We believe that stability in Syria and the greater region can only be achieved through a political process that represents the will of all Syrians," he added. "We're committed to working with allies, partners, and the UN toward a durable political solution."

Syria has also yet to regain its seat at the Arab League despite increasing regional support for its return.

Russia, for its part, has long criticized sanctions against Syria and has repeatedly called for the country's reinstatement to the regional body despite U.S. pressure. Moscow, which now finds itself hit by a broad coalition of sanctions as a result of Russia's incursion into neighboring Ukraine, has managed to retain ties in the Middle East, especially among the wealthy countries of the Arabian Peninsula, including the UAE.

Assad's appearance in the UAE also comes just a day after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov traveled there to discuss energy at a time when the West sought to ween off of Russian oil and gas as well as geopolitical matters such as Iraq, Iran, Syria and Ukraine.

While the UAE has adopted a neutral stance on Russia's war in Ukraine, Syria has been one of the few countries to outwardly support what Putin has deemed a "special military operation." Reports have since merged of volunteers both among those loyal to the government and opposed to it signing up to fight on opposite ends of the war that has rocked Eastern Europe, but there has been no verifiable evidence of their actual participation in the conflict as of yet.

The UAE has sought to emphasize a more independent, non-aligned foreign policy track in recent years. The country has traditionally been a close partner of the U.S. as well as Saudi Arabia and remains active in the war in nearby Yemen, but the UAE has also recently engaged more openly with Iran and, along with Bahrain, was the first Arab country to normalize relations with Israel in 25 years as part of an agreement overseen by then-President Donald Trump in August 2019.