DUBAI (BLOOMBERG) – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited the United Arab Emirates on Friday (March 18), his first trip to an Arab country since the start of the civil war in 2011.
Mr Assad met the de facto ruler of the UAE Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed and Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, in a sign that Gulf leaders who initially supported a rebellion against him are ready to welcome Damascus back into the Arab fold.
The surprise visit comes as Russian President Vladimir Putin, a key ally of Mr Assad, pushes ahead with a more than three-week-old war on neighbouring Ukraine. It drew a rebuke from the United States, which has struggled to rally traditional Gulf Arab allies behind its campaign to isolate Mr Putin amid festering strains in a decades-old relationship.
Syria had been a pariah in the Arab world since Mr Assad’s crackdown on an uprising in 2011 triggered a brutal civil war. He clung to power with the help of Iran and Russia, whose intervention was instrumental in turning the tide of the conflict, and his foreign visits over the past decade had been limited to those two countries. Mr Assad has supported the invasion and Mr Putin has threatened to bring fighters from the Middle East into Ukraine.
Gulf Arab governments have increasingly concluded, however, that they would rather bring Syria back into the Arab fold than abandon it to their rival Iran. Gradual efforts to restore relations have picked up pace as the Biden administration works with world powers to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with the Islamic republic – an agreement Gulf Arab countries see as a threat to their own security.
Mr Assad’s visit comes amid increasingly fraught relations with the US. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have lobbied the Biden administration in recent months for security guarantees – including more help with air defences and intelligence sharing – to counter the looming prospect that sanctions on Iran will be lifted.