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Exclusive: Assad pushed by UAE to approve Syria earthquake aid, sources say

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  • UAE minister asks Assad for goodwill gesture, sources say
  • Syrian leaders have long opposed Turkey’s cross-border aid
  • Decision comes a week after devastating earthquake
  • ‘Earthquake diplomacy’ shifts Assad’s focus – Gulf sources
  • Key allies remain Russia, Iran, but Gulf states re-engage

BEIRUT/DUBAI, Feb 22 (Reuters) – Pushed by the United Arab Emirates, President Bashar al-Assad dropped calls for more aid to northwestern Syria, a Gulf region, sources said. A diplomatic victory for the nation, despite America’s disapproval.

Assad’s decision to authorize a wider aid corridor for a U.N. convoy into the northwest from Turkey marks a shift in his longstanding opposition to the flow of cross-border aid into the region, which is controlled by his rebel enemies and where four million people already depend on it. assistance.

His approval comes a week after an earthquake in southern Turkey and northwestern Syria killed more than 49,000 people.

Four sources in the region said the UAE’s role in persuading Assad suggested it had begun to exert some influence in Damascus, even as Russia and Shiite Iran remained the main foreign players there.

The UAE backed rebels who toppled the Syrian president. But Abu Dhabi, which has rebuilt ties in recent years, is one of several Sunni-led Arab states that see re-engagement with Assad as a way to counter Iranian influence, among other considerations.

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Such moves have picked up pace since the disaster.

UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan raised the issue of the border crossing with Assad in Damascus on February 12, as Assad The German announcement came a day before the ratification was announced – a senior source familiar with the Syrian government’s thinking and a senior diplomatic source said.

Sources familiar with the Syrian government’s thinking said Sheikh Abdullah had asked Assad to make a gesture of goodwill to the international community, saying it was a critical moment.

“One of the key points he made was the urgent need to allow humanitarian aid to come in from whichever way it needs to,” the senior diplomatic source said.

The UAE foreign minister noted that UN aid chief Martin Griffiths will visit Damascus the next day.

Assad’s decision was announced by the United Nations hours after Griffiths met President Assad in Damascus.

Senior sources familiar with the Syrian government’s thinking said the UAE’s role in persuading Assad should not be underestimated.

A Syrian source close to the Gulf said the UAE had used “soft power” against Assad, and a Turkish official also said the UAE played a role in persuading him.

The Syrian presidency has not issued any statement on Assad’s decision to approve the use of the crossing.

The Syrian Information Ministry did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

The UAE foreign ministry did not respond to questions about Sheikh Abdullah’s meeting with Assad.

three intersections

Since Assad lost control of much of Syria’s border with Turkey years ago, unilateral aid convoys from NGOs or individual countries have crossed the northwest.

But the UN agency, which is running one of the world’s largest aid operations in Syria, will not cross the border without government approval or authorization from the UN Security Council.

The UN agency was authorized by the Security Council to use a crossing at the time of the quake, which was temporarily unavailable. Assad’s approval They were given three months to use.

His nod comes as the U.S. pushes for a Security Council resolution to allow more access, an ally of Assad Russia does not think.

Moscow has repeatedly sparred with Western countries at the Security Council over cross-border aid to Syria, saying it violates Syria’s sovereignty.

A Russian diplomatic source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Russia would block a resolution authorizing expanded aid access for Turkey.

However, a Western diplomat, a U.N. official and a Syrian source with knowledge of the discussions said Russia had signaled to Assad that it could not veto such a resolution given international pressure for aid.

Russian diplomatic sources said Russia had not discussed with Assad how it might vote on such a resolution if brought up.

“Earthquake Diplomacy”

The UAE has provided aid to Syria since the disaster, dispatching 88 planes carrying about 3,000 tons of aid, reflecting broader Arab support, an Emirati official said in a statement to Reuters.

Other Arab countries, including U.S. allies, have also moved to normalize relations with Assad.

Jordan’s foreign minister visited Damascus for the first time since the war broke out in 2011, Assad held his first phone call with the Egyptian president and flew to Oman for an official visit.

One Gulf source said the disaster had created “earthquake diplomacy”, promoting openness to Damascus and cooperation on humanitarian crises.

“Assad has been looking at Moscow and Tehran for the past 11 to 12 years, and now he’s coming back to his Arab neighbours,” the source said.

Washington has expressed opposition to any move to restore or normalize relations with Assad, citing his government’s brutality during the conflict and the need for progress towards a political solution. U.S. sanctions are a big headache for countries seeking to expand commercial ties.

Saudi ArabiaSyria, which remains at odds with Assad, said a consensus was being built in the Arab world that isolating Syria would not work and that at some point there needed to be dialogue with Damascus to at least address humanitarian concerns.

“There is an urgent need to strengthen the Arab role in Syria,” the Emirati official said.

Reporting by Laila Bassam, Ghaida Ghantous, Maya Gebeily, Tom Perry, Orhan Coksun, Aziz El Yaakoubi; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by John Stonestreet

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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