President Bashar al-Assad of Syria traveled to the United Arab Emirates on Sunday for an official visit, a sign of the growing momentum with which he is returning to the international stage after a decade-long isolation.
Viewed as a pariah in many parts of the world for overseeing the bombing and torturing of his people when a 2011 uprising devolved into a civil war, Mr. al-Assad was welcomed in Abu Dhabi, the Emirati capital, on Sunday with a 21-gun salute, according to a report published by the official Emirates News Agency.
The trip came days after Mr. al-Assad traveled to Moscow to meet with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, and almost exactly a 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 that 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.”
Yet Mr. al-Assad’s normalization in the Middle East has only gained traction since then as other Arab leaders grapple with the fact that he remains in power.
“For the Emirates and other Arab countries, it is a recognition of the new reality of Syria, meaning that it can no longer be eliminated,” Mahdi Dakhlallah, a Syrian Baath Party politician and diplomat, said by telephone from Damascus.
He was received by a delegation that included the Emirati ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, and the two discussed the “brotherly relations” between their countries, the agency said. Sheikh Mohammed also offered condolences for the victims of the deadly earthquake that struck Syria and Turkey last month, and expressed confidence that Syria would overcome the crisis and “move into a new era.”
The earthquake last month, which killed more than 50,000 people in Turkey and Syria, lifted Mr. al-Assad into the softer light of disaster diplomacy, allowing him to edge further toward cementing his position in the region. After the earthquake, he met with several Arab officials, including the Emirati, Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers, who traveled to Damascus to offer their condolences. The United Arab Emirates pledged $100 million in aid.
Sunday was the first time in years that Mr. al-Assad’s wife, Asma al-Assad, had appeared with him in an official visit. A Twitter account for the Syrian presidency shared photographs of her in a white suit, smiling and chatting with the Emirati delegation.
The United Arab Emirates is a small, oil-rich Persian Gulf nation with outsize global influence where officials are keen to maintain relations with competing powers, including the United States, China, Russia and Iran. It has led the way among Arab countries in re-establishing ties with Mr. al-Assad’s 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 is still in the early steps, but it has begun.”
Saudi Arabia, the regional political heavyweight, has yet to follow suit. When the uprising began, the kingdom initially supported rebel groups fighting against Mr. al-Assad’s government forces. But when the earthquake struck, the kingdom sent planes filled with aid to both Syrian government-controlled and opposition-controlled territories.
At a conference in Germany last month, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, acknowledged that Arab countries had reached an “impasse” with the Syrian government and that the stalemate was doing little to alleviate 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, it is still being formulated.”
Vivian Nereim reported from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Hwaida Saad from Beirut. Ahmed Al Omran contributed reporting from Hofuf, Saudi Arabia.