In what seems to be a departure from a policy of non-engagement with the head of the Syrian regime, the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) Foreign Minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed met with Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on Tuesday 9 November.
According to a statement by the Syrian Presidency: “Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed stressed the UAE’s support for efforts for stability in Syria… expressing his confidence that Syria, under the leadership of President Al-Assad, and the efforts of its people are able to overcome the challenges caused by the war.”
Sheikh Bin Zayed was accompanied by Emirati Minister of State, Khalifa Shaheen, and the head of the Federal Authority for Identity, Citizenship, Customs and Ports Security, Ali al-Shamsi. The meeting took place in the presence of Dr. Faisal Mekdad, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates in Syria, and Mansour Fadlallah Azzam, Syria’s Minister of Presidential Affairs.
The Syrian regime news agency SANA reported that, “The meeting dealt with bilateral relations between the two brotherly countries and the development of bilateral cooperation in various fields of common interest.”
“The UAE’s support for all efforts made to end the Syrian crisis, consolidate stability in the country, and meet the aspirations of the brotherly Syrian people,” the UAE’s state news agency WAM reported.
The visit by Sheikh Bin Zayed is the first by an Emirati Foreign Minister since the 2011 mass uprising against the Assad regime, in which several Arab countries including the UAE backed the rebel groups. The popular protests soon snowballed into a full-blown civil war, resulting in the death of at least 500,000 people, and displacing seven million Syrians.
Several Arab states like Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon have made overtures towards the Syrian regime since Assad regained control of majority of the country. The UAE opened its embassy in Damascus on 27 December 2018, after seven years.
Meanwhile, the State Department in Washington was swift to object to the visit. The State Department spokesperson, Ned Prince, said: “We are concerned by reports of the meeting and the signal it sends. This administration will not express any support for efforts to normalize or rehabilitate Bashar al-Assad, who is a brutal dictator.
“We urge states in the region to carefully consider the atrocities that this regime (and) Bashar Assad himself has perpetrated on the Syrian people over the past decade, as well as the regime’s ongoing efforts to deny much of the country access to humanitarian aid and security.”
He also said the Secretary of State Antony Blinken had registered Washington’s disapproval of the meeting last week.
“We will not normalise or upgrade our diplomatic relations with the Assad regime, nor do we support other countries normalising or upgrading their relations given the atrocities that this regime has inflicted on its own people,” he said.
If sources are to be believed, most Arab countries are in the process of normalising relations with the Syrian regime. A border crossing was opened between Syria and Jordan after King Abdullah II had a telephone conversation with Assad in September. They also discussed issues related to trade and economic cooperation.