BEIRUT, Nov 9 (Reuters) – The United Arab Emirates foreign minister visited Damascus on Tuesday, Lebanese broadcasters reported, a sign of improving ties between President Bashar al-Assad and a U.S.-allied Arab state that once supported rebels trying to overthrow him.
There was no confirmation of the visit from either the Syrian or UAE foreign ministries, and no word on the visit on Syrian state media, but several Lebanese broadcasters including pro-Assad outlets reported it.
Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed would be the most senior Emirati dignitary to visit Syria in the decade since the eruption of a civil war in which several Arab states supported mainly Sunni Muslim rebels seeking to topple Assad.
The foreign minister arrived with a senior delegation, according to al-Manar TV, which is run by Lebanon’s Hezbollah, an Assad ally. Its correspondent said heavy security had been observed on the road from Damascus airport to the city and Sheikh Abdullah was due to meet Assad.
The pro-government Syrian newspaper al-Watan cited unofficial media sources “talking about” his arrival.
The UAE has been at the forefront of efforts by some Arab states to normalise ties with Damascus, and earlier this year called for Syria to be readmitted to the Arab League. It reopened its embassy in Damascus three years ago.
Jordan and Egypt, both U.S. allies, have also taken steps toward normalising relations since Assad, with Russian and Iranian help, defeated rebels across much of Syria, apart from some northern and eastern areas that remain outside his grasp.
The United States has said it does not support efforts to normalise ties with Assad or rehabilitate him until progress is made towards a political solution to the conflict.
Washington has also said it will not lift sanctions, including measures that can freeze the assets of anyone dealing with Syria, regardless of nationality.
The UAE may have asked Damascus not to trumpet the visit due to sensitivities in its ties to the United States, said Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist at the University of Oklahoma. “No one want to get their head too far over the parapet,” he said.
Last month, King Abdullah of Jordan spoke to Assad for the first time in a decade, and the border between the countries was reopened for trade. The Egyptian foreign minister also met his Syrian counterpart in September, the highest level contact between the countries since the civil war began.
“Both the UAE and Egypt have long believed that the Damascus government serves as a break on the spread of Islamist groups in the region,” Landis said. Investment is expected once Syria is readmitted to the Arab League, he added, though private firms would wait to see how the United States would respond first.
Reporting by Yasmin Hussein, Kinda Makieh and Aziz El Yaakoubi
Writing by Maha El Dahan/Tom Perry
Editing by Peter Graff and Mark Heinrich
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