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Assad Visits U.A.E. in Latest Sign of Re-engagement

DAMASCUS, Syria — Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, was in the United Arab Emirates on Friday, his office said, his first visit to an Arab country since Syria’s civil war erupted in 2011.

In a statement posted on its social media pages, Mr. Assad’s office said he had met with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the Emirates’ vice president and prime minister, who is also the ruler of Dubai. The two discussed expanding bilateral relations between Syria and the Emirates, it said.

The visit sends the clearest signal yet that the Arab world is willing to re-engage with Syria’s widely shunned president. It comes against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, where Mr. Assad’s main ally, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, is pressing on with a military offensive, now in its fourth week. Syria has supported Russia’s invasion, accusing the West of having provoked it.

Syria was expelled from the 22-member Arab League and boycotted by its neighbors after its civil war broke out 11 years ago. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the war, which displaced half of Syria’s population. Large parts of the country have been destroyed, and reconstruction would cost tens of billions of dollars.

Arab and Western countries generally blamed Mr. Assad’s deadly crackdown on 2011 protests for setting off the war, and they supported the opposition in the early days of the conflict.

Asked about Mr. Assad’s visit to the Emirates, a State Department spokesman, 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 prewar Syrian population and the arbitrary detention and disappearance of over 150,000 Syrian men, women and children.”

Mr. Assad has very rarely traveled outside Syria during the war, visiting only Russia and Iran. Tehran has given the Syrian government billions of dollars in aid and sent Iran-backed fighters to battle alongside his forces — assistance that, along with Russian air power, helped turn the tide in Mr. Assad’s favor.

With the war having fallen into a stalemate and Mr. Assad recovering control over most of the country, Arab countries have inched toward restoring ties with the Syrian leader in recent years.

The Emirates reopened its embassy in Syria in late 2018 in the most significant Arab overture toward the Assad government, though relations remained cold. Last fall, the Emirati foreign minister flew to Damascus for a meeting with Mr. Assad, the first visit by the country’s top diplomat since 2011. The United States, a close partner of the Emirates, criticized the visit at the time, saying it would not support any normalization of relations with Mr. Assad’s government.

A key motive for the overtures by Sunni Muslim countries in the Persian Gulf is to blunt the involvement of their Shiite-led foe, Iran, whose influence expanded rapidly in the chaos of Syria’s war.

The rapprochement, however, could serve both sides.

Syria badly needs to improve relations with oil-rich countries as its economy is strangled by crippling Western sanctions and as it faces the task of postwar reconstruction. The Emirates is also home to thousands of Syrians who work there and send money to their relatives at home.

The Emirates’ state-run WAM news agency said the country’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, had welcomed Mr. Assad at his palace in Abu Dhabi.

At the meeting, the crown prince expressed his hope that “this visit would be the beginning of peace and stability for Syria and the entire region,” according to the report. Mr. Assad was reported to have left the Emirates from Abu Dhabi later on Friday.

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