Assad’s 2nd Diplomatic Trip in Days Speeds Easing of Isolation

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad traveled to the United Arab Emirates on Sunday for an official visit accompanied by his wife, a sign of the growing momentum with which he returns to the international stage after a decade of isolation.

Seen as a pariah in many parts of the world for overseeing the bombings and torture of his people as a 2011 uprising turned into a civil war, al-Assad was greeted in the Emirati capital Abu Dhabi on Sunday with a 21- arms salute, according to a report published by the official Emirates News Agency.

He was received by a delegation that included the Emirati ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, and the two discussed “fraternal relations” between their countries, the agency said. Sheikh Mohammed also offered his condolences for the victims of the deadly earthquake that hit Syria and Turkey last month, expressing his confidence that Syria will overcome the crisis and “pass into a new era.”

The trip came days after al-Assad traveled to Moscow to meet with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russiaand almost exactly one year since the Syrian leader’s last visit to the United Arab Emirates, which was his first reception by an Arab country since the Syrian civil war began.

At the time, a State Department spokesman, Ned Price, said Washington was “deeply disappointed and concerned by this apparent attempt to legitimize Bashar al-Assad, who continues to be responsible for the death and suffering of countless Syrians, the displacement of more than half of the Syrian population before the war and the arbitrary detention and disappearance of more than 150,000 Syrian men, women and children”.

However, al-Assad’s normalization in the Middle East has only gained steam since then, as other Arab leaders grapple with the fact that he is clearly here to stay.

“For the Emirates and other Arab countries, it is a recognition of the new reality of Syria, which means that it can no longer be eliminated,” Mahdi Dakhlallah, a Syrian Baath Party politician and diplomat, said by phone from Damascus.

Last month’s earthquake, which killed more than 50,000 people in Turkey and Syria, brought al-Assad into the dimmest light of disaster diplomacy, allowing him to move further toward consolidating his position in the region. After the earthquake, he met several Arab officials, including the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Jordan, who traveled to Damascus to offer condolences to him. The United Arab Emirates pledged $100 million in aid.

Sunday marked the first time in years that al-Assad’s wife, Asma al-Assad, had appeared with him on an official visit. A Twitter account for the Syrian presidency shared pictures of her in a white suitsmiling and chatting with the Emirati delegation.

The United Arab Emirates is a small, oil-rich Persian Gulf nation with enormous global influence where officials are willing to maintain relations with competing powers, including the United States, China, Russia and Iran. It has led the way among Arab countries in restoring ties with the al-Assad government and reopened its embassy in Syria in 2018.

The visit to Abu Dhabi is “an affirmation of Syria’s restoration of its role,” Mr. Dakhlallah said. “It’s still in the early stages, but it’s started.”

Saudi Arabia, the heavyweight of regional politics, has not yet followed suit. When the uprising began, the kingdom initially supported rebel groups fighting against al-Assad’s government forces. But when the quake struck, the kingdom sent planeloads of aid to both Syrian government-held and opposition-held territories.

At a conference in Germany last month, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan acknowledged that Arab countries had reached a “deadlock” with the Syrian government and that the impasse was doing little to ease the suffering of Syrians in Syria or abroad.

“There is a consensus within the Arab world that the status quo is not working and that we need to find some other approach,” he said. “What that approach is, is still being formulated.”

Ahmed Al Omran contributed reporting.