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Time for Syria to return to Arab fold, UAE president tells Assad during visit

The UAE normalised ties with Damascus in 2018 and has led aid efforts following the devastating February 6 quake
— Dubai (AFP)

The UAE's president on Sunday told his Syrian counterpart it was time for diplomatically isolated Damascus to be reintegrated into the wider Arab region during a meeting in Abu Dhabi, state media reported.

The trip by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- his second to the oil-rich United Arab Emirates in as many years -- comes after a visit to Oman last month, his only official engagements in Arab countries since the start of Syria's war in 2011.

It coincides with amplified engagement by Arab states towards the Damascus government which has been politically isolated in the region since the start of Syria's war and was expelled from the Cairo-based Arab League in 2011 over its violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations.

"Syria has been absent from its brothers for too long, and the time has come for it to return to them and to its Arab surroundings," Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan told Assad during a meeting at the presidential palace, according to the official WAM news agency.

The Emirati president called for efforts to facilitate the repatriation of Syrian refugees and endorsed engagement between Damascus and Ankara, which is now working towards a rapprochement with Assad after years of supporting rebels fighting his government, according to WAM.

- 'Deeper vision' -

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 tens of thousands.

President Bashar al-Assad's wife Asma joined him in a first joint trip abroad in over a decade

Analysts say the diplomatic momentum generated 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.

"The UAE's approach and efforts towards Syria are part of a deeper vision and a broader approach aimed at strengthening Arab and regional stability," said Emirati senior presidential adviser Anwar Gargash.

"The UAE's position is clear regarding the need for Syria to return to" its place in the Arab world and regain legitimacy in the region, Gargash said on Twitter.

"This was confirmed by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed during his meeting today" with Assad, the adviser added.

During Sunday's meeting, Assad praised the UAE's role in strengthening relations between Arab countries, according to a statement by the Syrian presidency.

The Syrian president criticised the policy of severing ties between Arab states as an "incorrect principle in politics", arguing that relations should be "fraternal", the statement said.

- 'Time to reconcile' -

During Syria's war, Assad had rarely gone abroad, with the notable exception of allies Iran and Russia

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

Sunday's UAE visit is Assad's first official trip abroad accompanied by his wife Asma in more than a decade.

It also comes on the heels of a Chinese-brokered announcement earlier this month to end a seven-year diplomatic rupture between regional powerhouses Iran and Saudi Arabia, who had backed rival sides in Syria's war.

"Syria is no longer an arena for Saudi-Iranian confrontation as it was at certain stages," Assad told Russian state broadcaster RT in an interview last week, welcoming the Saudi-Iran detente as a "wonderful surprise".

"Saudi policy has taken a different direction towards Syria," he said.

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.

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 quake.

The UAE pledged more than $100 million in aid to quake-hit Syria and dispatched a search and rescue team

The UAE had pledged more than $100 million in assistance to quake-hit Syria, by far the largest sum from any single nation.

It had also dispatched a search and rescue team, provided thousands of tonnes in emergency relief items and provided medical treatment for Syrian quake victims in Emirati hospitals.

And the UAE's foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, last month became the first senior Arab official to visit Syria since the quake.

Emirati analyst Abdulkhaleq Abdulla said Abu Dhabi "is convinced, along with many Arab states, that the time has come to reconcile with Assad... and see Syria return to the Arab League and the Arab fold".

"The UAE is spearheading efforts to reconcile with enemies of the past and transform them into the friends of tomorrow," Abdulla told AFP.