Bashar Assad arrives in UAE for second visit since Syria war

Bashar Assad arrives in UAE for second visit since Syria war
The UAE has led recent efforts in sending aid to Syria following the devastating 6 February earthquake and has sought to rebuild its ties with Damascus' isolated government in recent years.
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Syrian regime leader Bashar al-Assad is slowly re-building diplomatic relations with Arab countries, notably the UAE [Getty]

Syrian regime president, Bashar al-Assad, has arrived on Sunday in the United Arab Emirates for his second visit to the Gulf since a devastating earthquake last month prompted Arab outreach to his internationally isolated government.

The trip - Assad's second to the oil-rich UAE in as many years - comes after a visit to Oman last month, his only official engagement in Arab countries since the start of Syria's war in 2011, which began with a brutal crackdown on opposition and has since destroyed swathes of the country.

"Bashar Al-Assad, President of the Syrian Arab Republic, arrived today (Sunday) in the UAE on an official visit, accompanied by his wife, Asma," UAE state media said.

The Syrian leader was greeted in the capital Abu Dhabi by Emirati President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the official news agency WAM reported.

Assad's visit also coincides with the 12-year anniversary of the Syrian civil war, which began on 15 March 2011.

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Abu Dhabi, which normalised relations with Assad's government in 2018, has led aid efforts in the aftermath of the February 6 earthquake that struck southeastern Turkey and northern Syria, killing 50,o00 people.

Analysts say a diplomatic momentum generated by aid efforts in the quake's aftermath could bolster Damascus's relations with Middle Eastern countries that have so far resisted normalisation after more than a decade of war, which has killed 500,000 Syrians and displaced millions more.

Many parts of Syria, especially the northwest region, reel from poverty, inadequate health facilities, and risk of disease outbreaks, among other hardships. The devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake further exacerbated Syrian suffering.

The UAE pledged more than $100 million in assistance to quake-hit Syria, by far the largest sum by any single nation. It also dispatched a search and rescue team and provided thousands of tonnes of emergency relief items.

The UAE's foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, visited Syria last month - the first senior Gulf official to do so since the quake.

Some analysts believe that the UAE's rebuilding of ties with Syria as a Sunni-Arab country is one of many ways to counter Iran's influence, among other considerations. 

Other Arab states, including US allies, have also moved to 'normalise' ties with Assad.

Jordan's foreign minister visited Damascus for the first time since war erupted in 2011, and Assad has held his first phone call with Egypt's president and flown to Oman on an official visit. The US, however, has voiced opposition over such moves due to Assad's record of brutality against his own people.

Meanwhile, during the war in Syria, Assad had rarely gone abroad, with the notable exception of allies Iran and Russia - where he visited again this week and met with President Vladimir Putin.

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Both Tehran and Moscow have helped prop up Assad during the conflict, with troops from both countries fighting during the war against the Syrian opposition.

On Thursday, Iran's top security official Ali Shamkhani met the Emirati president in Abu Dhabi and held talks with UAE national security adviser Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, who on Sunday attended the welcoming ceremony for Assad at the presidential palace.

The foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, which has also sent quake aid to Syria, said last month a consensus was building in the Arab world that a new approach to Damascus would be needed to address humanitarian crises, including the earthquake.