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Assad’s Surprise Visit to UAE Was Made With Putin in Mind
Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, meets with United Arab Emirates Prime Minister and Emir of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum in Abu Dhabi on March 18, 2022. (Government of Dubai - Media Office /Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Assad’s Surprise Visit to UAE Was Made With Putin in Mind

Syrian president’s visit to Dubai to meet with UAE de facto ruler, the first to an Arab country since start of Syria’s civil war, is seen as a prelude to reentering the international community

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s surprise one-day visit to the United Arab Emirates was his first official trip to an Arab state since civil war erupted in his country in 2011.

The invitation to Friday’s meeting came from Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the UAE’s de facto ruler.

According to the official news agency WAM, the talks centered on efforts to “contribute to the consolidation of security, stability and peace in the Arab region and the Middle East.”

Syria’s state news agency SANA said the meeting helped to “strengthen cooperation” between the two sides.

Sheikh Mohammed said he hoped the visit would “pave the way for goodness, peace and stability to prevail in Syria and the entire region,” according to the report.

Assad’s visit is the latest sign of warming ties between Syria and the UAE.

Putin instructed Bashar al-Assad to go to the Emirates to test the waters of the leaders of the Emirates regarding the blockade imposed on Russia

Mordechai Kedar, a professor of Arabic and Middle East Studies at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, told The Media Line that Assad’s visit and the recent rapprochement between Syria and the Emirates is an attempt by Abu Dhabi to heal the Arab rift. But more importantly, he says, “it’s an attempt to drive a wedge between Damascus and Tehran.”

Kedar also says that Assad went to Abu Dhabi on a special mission from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Putin instructed Bashar al-Assad to go to the Emirates to test the waters of the leaders of the Emirates regarding the blockade imposed on Russia,” he said.

Kedar argues that Putin is experiencing a major financial crisis because of the harsh international sanctions against Russia over its war in Ukraine, and he is in dire need of money.

“It seems to me that what Putin desperately needs now can be found in the Emirates,” he said.

Assad is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose forces invaded neighboring Ukraine nearly a month ago, while the energy-rich UAE is a key US ally, which has with its allies imposed devastating economic and financial sanctions on Moscow.

Middle East expert Hasan Merhej told The Media Line that Assad’s visit to the UAE carries many messages and implications.

Merhej says the period of “covert movement,” as Assad did when he secretly visited Moscow, “is over.”

“The president’s siege is over and he can visit any country he wants. This is a very positive sign,” he said.

He describes the visit as a “tacit acknowledgment of President Assad’s rule and his continuation in power despite previous Arab, European and American calls for him to step down.”

Syria’s economy has been shattered by more than a decade of civil war and crushing sanctions.

“There is an economic role that the UAE will have in Syria and rebuilding,” said Merhej.

The US State Department criticized the trip. US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Washington was “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.”

This is, perhaps, an opportunity for the UAE to take revenge on Washington over what Abu Dhabi perceives as a lack of public support over the Houthi drone attacks, and the nuclear agreement being negotiated with Iran, Kedar says.

“There is great animosity between the Emirates and the United States because of the agreement with Iran. The Emiratis today have no problem sticking their finger in the eye of America. There is great anger against America because of the agreement with Iran,” he said.

At the outset of the Syrian civil war, most Arab countries made known their opposition to Assad’s violent repression of protesters, but that opposition has shifted in recent years with Arab governments warming to Assad.

There is an economic role that the UAE will have in Syria and rebuilding

Bahrain and the UAE have both reopened embassies in Damascus. Saudi Arabia, a staunch adversary of Assad, which financed the Syrian opposition by supplying it with weapons and political support, severed diplomatic relations with the Syrian government in 2012. However, Merhej says the visit wouldn’t have happened without Riyadh’s approval, as it has toned down its public criticism of Damascus.

“There is no role in a Syrian-Israeli rapprochement, as Abu Dhabi has many good regional relations with Iran and Turkey, for example. This falls under this policy,” he explained.

The UAE and Bahrain normalized ties with Israel under the Abraham Accords in 2020, but Kedar doesn’t think this will have any influence on Syria, which is officially still at war with Israel.

“It seems to me that Israel was not on the agenda during this visit. The problem now is huge and has nothing to do with Israel, while the issue is related to the Russian need for money,” Kedar said.

 

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