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Syria, UAE leaders discuss closer relations in rare call

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — The United Arab Emirates’ crown prince received a rare telephone call from Syrian President Bashar Assad in which they discussed strengthening relations and cooperation, Syria’s state media reported Wednesday.

The call between Assad and UAE’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed came as some Arab countries are improving 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 strong allies Russia and Iran, who helped tip the balance of power in his favor. The conflict killed hundreds of thousands and displaced half of Syria’s population, including 5 million refugees outside the country.

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

Assad’s office said the two leaders discussed mutual relations and ways of strengthening them in addition to expanding cooperation. It added that they also discussed regional and international affairs. Assad’s office did not elaborate.

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

The UAE was a supporter of the Syrian opposition, which is now largely confined to a small corner in northwest Syria after Assad’s forces gained control of much of Syria in recent years.

The call comes as Syria’s economy is being squeezed by crippling Western sanctions and at a time when Damascus badly needs to boost relations with countries such as the oil-rich UAE. The UAE is home to thousands of Syrians who work in the gulf nation and send money to their relatives at home.

Arab and Western countries generally blamed Assad for the deadly crackdown on protests that erupted in 2011 and developed into a civil war, and supported the opposition in the early days of the conflict.

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