Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on Friday, his office said, marking his first visit to an Arab country since Syria’s civil war erupted in 2011.
In a statement posted on its social media pages, the office says that Assad met with Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE and the ruler of Dubai. The two discussed expanding bilateral relations between their countries.
The visit sends the clearest signal yet that some Arab states are willing to re-engage with Syria’s once widely shunned regime, although many Arab states led by Qatar remain opposed to normalizing Assad.
Syria was expelled from the 22-member Arab League and boycotted by its neighbors after the conflict broke out 11 years ago.
Over 500,000 deaths have been estimated as a result of the war – which saw the Syrian regime brutally crackdown on pro-democracy protesters – and more than five million Syrians were forced to flee to neighboring countries.
Large parts of Syria have been also destroyed and reconstruction would cost tens of billions of dollars.
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Arab and Western countries generally blamed the Assad regime for the deadly crackdown on the 2011 protests that evolved into civil war and supported the opposition in the early days of the conflict.
With the war having fallen into a stalemate and Assad recovering control over most of the country thanks to military assistance from allies Russia and Iran, Arab countries have inched closer toward restoring ties with the Syrian leader in recent years.
A key motive for Sunni Muslim countries in the Arab Gulf is to blunt the involvement of their Shia-led foe, Iran, which saw its influence expand rapidly in the chaos of Syria’s war.
The UAE’s state-run WAM news agency said the country’s de facto ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan welcomed Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to his palace in Abu Dhabi.
At the meeting, Sheikh Mohammed expressed his hope “this visit would be the beginning of peace and stability for Syria and the entire region.”
The report said Assad briefed Sheikh Mohammed on the latest developments in Syria and the two leaders discussed mutual interests in the Arab world. Assad was reported to have left the UAE later on Friday from Abu Dhabi.
Syrians, millions of whom have been forced to leave their country by Assad’s atrocities, immediately expressed outrage on social media over the Emirati ‘betrayal’, which comes a few days after the 11th anniversary of the Syrian revolution. Some even compared the UAE’s normalization with Assad to its normalization with Israel.
This article was edited by The Syrian Observer. The Syrian Observer has not verified the content of this story. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.