Mar 23, 2022 - World

Assad's UAE visit blindsided the U.S.

Syria's Bashar al-Assad (left) meets with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum on March 18. Photo: Government of Dubai/Media Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Syria's Bashar al-Assad (left) meets with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum on March 18. Photo: Government of Dubai Media Office/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Biden administration was caught off guard last Friday when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited the United Arab Emirates, two sources with direct knowledge of the issue told me.

Why it matters: Assad's visit, which was his first to an Arab country since the Syrian war erupted 11 years ago, added more tension to the already strained relations between the U.S. and the UAE.

Driving the news: Assad arrived in Abu Dhabi on Friday and met Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) and the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

  • The Syrian and UAE state media reported the visit only after Assad arrived in Abu Dhabi.
  • The Biden administration learned about the visit from the media, the two sources said, adding that White House and State Department officials felt blindsided.
  • MBZ briefed Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi about Assad’s visit, an Israeli source with knowledge of the meeting told me.

What they're saying: "We are profoundly disappointed and troubled by this apparent attempt to legitimize Bashar al-Assad," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Sunday.

  • Assad "remains responsible and accountable for the death and suffering of countless Syrians, the displacement of more than half of the pre-war Syrian population, and the arbitrary detention and disappearance of over 150,000 Syrian men, women and children," Price added.
  • Biden administration officials raised the issue with Emirati officials and conveyed their disappointment and protest over the visit, Price said on Monday.
  • Price stressed that the Biden administration will not lift or waive sanctions imposed on Syria.
  • The State Department declined to comment on whether it was surprised by Assad’s visit.

The other side: The Emiratis pushed back on the U.S. criticism. An Emirati official told me Assad’s visit was part of a new broader strategy of talking to everyone in the region and trying to have no enemies.

  • "Our new approach emphasizes diplomacy, de-escalation and engagement … and we put our own interests first," the Emirati official said.

Catch up quick: Relations between the U.S. and the UAE have been strained since a Houthi missile attack on Abu Dhabi in January.

  • The Emiratis were disappointed with the U.S. response, which they felt was too weak and too slow.
  • MBZ refused to meet CENTCOM commander Gen. Frank McKenzie when he visited Abu Dhabi in February, claiming it took the general 22 days after the missile attack to show up.
  • The Emiratis were also disappointed when the Biden administration declined their request to redesignate the Houthis as a terror organization.

The big picture: Earlier this month, the UAE abstained from a UN Security Council vote on a U.S.-led resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

  • The U.S. enlisted Israel to lobby the UAE to vote in favor of a similar resolution at the UN General Assembly. The Emiratis ultimately voted to condemn the invasion.
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