Exclusive: Assad approved Syria quake aid with a UAE nudge, sources say
- UAE minister asked Assad for goodwill gesture, says source
- Syrian leader long opposed cross-border aid from Turkey
- Decision came a week after devastating earthquake
- 'Earthquake diplomacy' shifting Assad's focus -Gulf source
- Top allies still Russia, Iran, but Gulf states re-engaging
BEIRUT/DUBAI, Feb 22 (Reuters) - President Bashar al-Assad ceded to calls for more aid access to Syria's northwest with prodding from the United Arab Emirates, sources say, a diplomatic win for the Gulf state which has rebuilt ties with Damascus despite U.S. disapproval.
Assad's decision to approve wider aid access for U.N. convoys into the northwest from Turkey marked a shift from his long-standing opposition to cross-border aid flows into the area, which is controlled by his insurgent enemies and where 4 million people were already dependent on aid.
His approval came a week after an earthquake devastated southern Turkey and northwest Syria, killing more than 49,000 people.
The UAE's role in persuading Assad, described by four sources in the region, suggests it has started to carve out a degree of sway in Damascus, even if Russia and Shi'ite Iran remain the dominant foreign players there.
The UAE once backed rebels fighting to overthrow Syria's president. But Abu Dhabi has rebuilt ties in recent years, one of several Sunni-led Arab countries that see re-engagement with Assad as a way to counter Iran's influence, among other considerations.
Such moves have gathered pace since the disaster.
UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan raised the crossings issue with Assad in Damascus on Feb. 12, the day before Assad's approval was announced - according to a senior source familiar with Syrian government thinking and a senior diplomatic source.
Sheikh Abdullah asked Assad to offer a goodwill gesture to the international community, describing it as a critical moment, the source familiar with Syrian government thinking said.
The senior diplomatic source said: "One of the key points that he raised was the urgent need to allow humanitarian access from whichever way it needed to come in".
The Emirati foreign minister noted U.N. aid chief Martin Griffiths was due to visit Damascus the next day.
Assad's decision was announced by the United Nations hours after Griffiths met the president in Damascus.
The senior source familiar with Syrian government thinking said that the UAE role in persuading Assad should not be underestimated.
A Syrian source close to the Gulf said the UAE had used its "soft power" on Assad and a Turkish official also said the UAE had played a part in persuading him.
The Syrian presidency has issued no statements on Assad's decision to approve the use of the crossings.
The Syrian information ministry did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
The UAE foreign ministry did not respond to questions on the accounts of Sheikh Abdullah's meeting with Assad.
THREE CROSSING POINTS
Assad lost control of most of Syria's border with Turkey years ago, since when unilateral aid convoys from NGOs or individual states have crossed into the northwest.
But U.N. agencies, which operate one of the world's largest aid operations in Syria, will not cross the border without government approval or U.N. Security Council authorisation.
When the earthquake struck, U.N. agencies had Security Council authorisation to use one crossing, which was temporarily knocked out of action. Assad's approval gave them the use of two more for three months.
His nod came as the United States was pushing for a Security Council resolution allowing additional access, which Assad's ally Russia did not think was needed.
Moscow has tussled with Western states repeatedly at the Security Council over cross-border aid into Syria, arguing it violates Syria's sovereignty.
A Russian diplomatic source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Russia would have blocked a resolution authorizing expanded aid access from Turkey.
However, a Western diplomat, a U.N. official and a Syrian source with knowledge of discussions said Russia had signalled to Assad that it would not be in a position to veto such a resolution given international pressure on getting aid in.
The Russian diplomatic source said Russia did not speak with Assad about how it might vote if such a resolution was put forward.
The UAE has poured aid into Syria since the disaster, flying in 88 planes loaded with some 3,000 tonnes of aid, a UAE official said in a statement to Reuters, reflecting a wider outpouring of Arab support.
Other Arab states, including U.S. allies, have also moved to normalise ties with Assad.
Jordan's foreign minister visited Damascus for the first time since war erupted in 2011, and Assad has held his first phone call with Egypt's president and flown to Oman on an official visit.
A Gulf source said the disaster had created "earthquake diplomacy" that was pushing forward openness towards Damascus and cooperation on the humanitarian crisis.
"Assad spent the last 11 to 12 years looking towards Moscow and Tehran, and now he is back reaching out to his Arab neighbours," the source said.
Washington has voiced opposition to any moves towards rehabilitating or normalizing ties with Assad, citing his government's brutality during the conflict and the need to see progress towards a political solution. U.S. sanctions are a big complication for countries seeking to expand commercial ties.
Saudi Arabia, which remains at odds with Assad, has said consensus was building in the Arab world that isolating Syria was not working and that dialogue with Damascus was needed at some point to at least address humanitarian issues.
The UAE official said there was an "urgent need to strengthen the Arab role in Syria".
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