Syria, UAE leaders discuss closer ties in rare appeal

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DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) – The Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates received a rare phone call from Syrian President Bashar Assad in which they discussed strengthening relations and cooperation, Syrian state media reported on Wednesday.

The appeal between Assad and UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed came as some Arab countries improve relations with Syria, a decade after the country’s civil war began.

Syrian government forces now control much of the country with the help of Assad’s powerful allies Russia and Iran, who have helped tip the balance of power in his favor. The conflict has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced half of the Syrian population, including 5 million refugees from the country.

The UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus in December 2018, but relations have remained cold since then.

Assad’s office said the two leaders discussed the mutual relationship and ways to strengthen it in addition to expanding cooperation. He added that they also discussed regional and international affairs. Assad’s office did not specify.

Last month, Assad called Jordan’s King Abdullah II for the first time since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. The two countries also reopened a major border crossing between them.

The UAE supported the Syrian opposition, which is now largely confined to a small corner of northwestern Syria after Assad’s forces have taken control of much of Syria in recent years.

The call comes as the Syrian economy is suffocated by crippling Western sanctions and at a time when Damascus is in desperate need of strengthening relations with countries such as the oil-rich United Arab Emirates. The UAE is home to thousands of Syrians who work in the Gulf country and send money to loved ones.

Arab and Western countries have generally blamed Assad for the murderous crackdown on protests that erupted in 2011 and turned into a civil war, and supported the opposition at the start of the conflict.