UAE’s foreign minister meets with Syrian president in Damascus

UAE’s foreign minister, Anwar Gargash, met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on Sunday and discussed the possibility of cooperating in areas where the U.S. has a stake, such as the war on the Islamic State.

Mr. Gargash said the visit, which lasted more than three hours, was also aimed at fostering good relations between the two countries and was “also an opportunity to discuss a range of cooperation and other issues of common interest in all fields.”

The unprecedented meeting came less than a month after another high-profile meeting in which Syrian officials met in Damascus with UAE ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba and the UAE foreign minister, Anwar Gargash. There had been speculation in the Middle East for months that the U.S. Gulf allies might dispatch their foreign ministers to Syria following Mr. Assad’s visit to Russia in May.

Syria, the UAE and Russia have been negotiating a political transition since Russia and the U.S. concluded a cooperation agreement in July 2016.

At the time, Russia was supporting Mr. Assad with military support, while the U.S. was backing a moderate opposition. Since then, however, Mr. Assad has used Russian airpower to regain the upper hand in the war. Mr. Assad, who has long sought to expand his sphere of influence, is now fighting multiple battles as well as terrorists on multiple fronts.

In return for Russia’s military intervention, Mr. Assad reportedly accepted Iranian-backed militias will maintain military operations in Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. They play a central role in the government’s heavy-handed fight to control the area, in which thousands of civilians have been displaced.

UN delegates now hope to negotiate a ceasefire and a political transition within a six-month timeframe. However, the talks between the Syrian government and opposition in Kazakhstan hit an impasse over several weeks ago as the government sought further concessions, while the opposition made demands to expand its delegation and participate in open talks in Geneva.

Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s foreign minister, said on Sunday that a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Abu Dhabi in August would mark another “major step.”

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