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The earthquakes have prompted Arab states to re-engage with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad


Since last month's earthquake, some Arab states have warmed up to the Syrian government despite their prior opposition to the regime and its poor human rights record. NPR's Aya Batrawy is one of the few outside reporters to visit Syria since the quakes, and she saw how the United Arab Emirates is realigning its relations with Syria's government and people.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Deep in the Syrian countryside, outside the city of Jebleh, I follow a group of aid workers from the United Arab Emirates on dirt roads past lemon and mandarin trees and buildings damaged by the earthquakes. We go up the stairs of an unfinished cinderblock building.


BATRAWY: We reach an apartment with a Syrian man sick with cancer and displaced from his home by the earthquakes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: He tells me about the surgeries he's had and the one he still needs. His daughter tenderly holds his hand and tries to comfort him.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED AID WORKER #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: Aid workers from the Emirati Red Crescent are also by his bedside. They've brought him cash to pay for surgery he needs but couldn't afford. And they have a message for him.

UNIDENTIFIED AID WORKER #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED AID WORKER #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED AID WORKER #3: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: This is from the UAE's president, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, who's asked them to help the Syrian people.

I was able to have this rare access into Syrian government territory through the UAE by coming on an Emirati cargo plane from Abu Dhabi. It's one of more than 138 flights the UAE has sent to Syria since February's earthquakes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: The UAE's presence at Latakia airport is possible because it has been restoring ties with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime steadily over the years. Early in the civil war, Gulf Arab states had supported the rebels fighting against Assad and his Iranian allies. But countries like the UAE, Oman, Egypt and Jordan, are now using this moment after the earthquakes to rebuild ties with a regime that's still around, like it or not.

ABDULKHALEQ ABDULLA: And I think they all came to the realization that we fought this regime, that we try to topple this regime. Come 2020, we came to a new realization that this government is here to stay.

BATRAWY: Abdulkhaleq Abdulla is an Emirati analyst and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center. He says the earthquake is an opportunity to turn aid diplomacy into political diplomacy. Even Saudi Arabia, which helped arm groups fighting Assad's regime, has sent direct aid into Syria. But Hiba Zayadin of Human Rights Watch, says Arab states should slow down their outreach to Damascus and press for accountability for the brutal suppression of protests, the bombing of civilian areas and the forced disappearance of thousands of people.

HIBA ZAYADIN: I think there needs to be some leverage. There needs to be some commitments made. And the commitments have to be very clear in terms of a safe return for refugees, that that return is monitored and whether they even have homes to return to. So there's a lot of commitments that need to be made that are precise before countries should be rushing to normalize.

BATRAWY: The U.S. has called for free elections and other major reforms in Syria before it rebuilds ties with Damascus. But Gulf Arab states want to reassert their influence in Syria, in part to counter Iranian militias there. The UAE has already delivered over 4,000 tons of aid into Syria, some of it arriving here in Latakia province, where Russia's warplanes helped the Syrian regime fight to stay in power.


BATRAWY: And at this airport in Latakia, I am staring out onto a Russian military base, and there are Russian soldiers walking back and forth. They are approving all the aid flights that are coming in from the UAE, like the one that I was on to get here.

Syria is an impoverished fragmented country. Many families in Jebleh have sons who've died fighting for the regime. What they tell me is no secret. The government has offered little to no help since the earthquakes. People in Jebleh earn around $13 a month, but many others can't find work at all.

LALA FARIS: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: Lala Faris' four sons have all been drafted to fight in Syria's civil war. One of them is now an officer in the city of Aleppo. But she's sad and tired of conflict. She wants Syria to be united and at peace again.

FARIS: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: Her refrigerator is empty. There's no electricity most of the day to keep it running anyway. Her pregnant daughter-in-law fainted during the earthquakes and is bedridden. Emirati aid workers are giving her money for surgery.

It's nearly nightfall. There are still more homes to visit. The Emirati aid workers are assisting families impacted not just by the earthquakes, but by years of deprivation from civil war and Syria's isolation. And that's what the UAE is working to reverse for its own national interests as well.

Aya Batrawy, NPR News, Jebleh, Syria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.