Robert Inlakesh is a political analyst, journalist and documentary filmmaker currently based in London, UK. He has reported from and lived in the occupied Palestinian territories and currently works with Quds News and Press TV. Director of ‘Steal of the Century: Trump’s Palestine-Israel Catastrophe’. Follow him on Twitter @falasteen47
Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad meets with United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, in Damascus Syria, in this handout released by SANA November 9, 2021. ©
In a significant move towards normalising Syria’s government, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed visited Damascus to discuss strengthening the ties between the two nations, sparking outrage from the US and Israel.
A surprise visit to the Syrian capital on Tuesday by Abu Dhabi’s foreign minister sparked condemnation from the United States, which seeks to encourage its Arab State allies to steer clear of President Assad. According to State Department spokesperson Ned Price, the US urges “states in the region to carefully consider the atrocities that this regime, that Bashar al-Assad himself has perpetrated on the Syrian people over the last decade, as well as the regime’s ongoing efforts to deny much of the country access to humanitarian aid and security.” That seems to have fallen on deaf ears over in Abu Dhabi.
However, despite the Biden administration having voiced its opposition to Assad’s government, behind the scenes, it may actually be working to create a temporary amendment to its 2019 “Caesar Act” sanctions, the mechanism it is speculated the US may implement to protect the likes of neighbouring Jordan. This would involve Amman liaising with the Syrian government to allow Egypt to send oil through to struggling Lebanon. Back in September, Jordanian, Egyptian and Lebanese representatives even met to discuss the logistics of managing such a transfer of oil, so as to provide Lebanon with the means to generate electricity.
Publicly, it seems the UAE – which reopened its embassy in Damascus three years ago – is leading the push to have Syria reinstated into the Arab League and enhance cooperation between the two. But, for Abu Dhabi, the so-called ‘brotherly’ nature of their relationship comes with strings attached. From an Emirati perspective, the relationship between the Syrian government and the UAE is threefold: first, Abu Dhabi sees Syria as a potential partner in the fight against the Muslim Brotherhood; second, it sees an opportunity to work towards facilitating the cooperation between Egypt and Jordan on the potential oil transfer to Lebanon; and last, it seeks to bring Syria closer to the Arab reactionary regimes and distance it from Iran. Both Egypt and Jordan have also taken strides to normalise relations with Damascus: in October, Jordan’s King Abdullah II participated in a phone call with President Assad and, on Tuesday, Egypt’s foreign minister made it clear he was open to the idea of Syria re-entering the Arab League.
Prior to the war in 2011, the Syrian government had embraced neo-liberal economics, but in terms of its foreign policy, it has always maintained a nationalist agenda. When the war in Syria began, the UAE jumped on the bandwagon of conspiring against Assad and financed armed groups to overthrow him. In and of itself, this makes it clear that Abu Dhabi is not acting in the interests of regular Syrians. It is easy to foresee the Syrian government developing its relationship with the UAE in order to strengthen its position in the region and secure investments to rebuild its war-torn nation in the future.
From a realist point of view, however, the decision-makers in the Emirates see that Assad is not going anywhere. They are seeking to combat Islamist forces regionally, so why not try to influence a nationalist nation while working alongside it to weaken the Muslim Brotherhood and erase Iran’s footprint in the country?
Given Turkey may imminently open up another offensive into northeastern Syria to combat the Kurds in areas controlled by the US and Kurdish SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), the Emirati foreign minister may well have wished to discuss this issue during his visit to Damascus. Turkey, which currently controls two pockets in Syria’s north through its Syrian National Army mercenary militia, is aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood. To the UAE, Turkey and Qatar are its biggest regional rivals.
But Washington, which is surely well aware of the policy positions its Middle Eastern allies are taking on Syria, continues to not only economically restrain Damascus, but also occupies roughly a third of Syrian territory with its proxy forces. The US currently presides over 90% of that nation’s oil resources and is even looting its most fertile agricultural lands, which those Syrians who are suffering under an economic crisis are unable to access. The US not only blocks progress and has extirpated attempts to rebuild the country, but adopts a militaristic approach and views itself as maintaining the right to remain there, despite not having acquired any congressional approval to be operating in Syria.
The main role of the US occupation of Syrian lands, through its Kurdish proxy forces in northeastern Syria and its mercenary forces in the al-Tanf region of south Syria, is to combat Tehran. Until significant Iranian influence is cleared out of the land, they will not leave of their own free will.
Then we have Israel, which will also not leave the Syrian lands it illegally occupies unless it is forced out in a war between the two nations. In tandem with Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) terrorists who have crawled out from their caves and suddenly received anti-tank munitions and a spike in their numbers, Israel has picked up its attacks against Syria. In fact, it has carried out at least five in Syria over the past month, killing soldiers and assassinating an ex-member of parliament. Israel is also seeking to quadruple its settler population in the Golan Heights, with Israeli PM Naftali Bennett having announced new construction plans just last month. It’s clear that Israel is seeking to provoke a reaction from Damascus and test how far it can cross the line before drawing defensive fire.
Instead of the Syrian Arab Army responding to US and Israeli aggression, independent groups that align with Iran have been at the forefront of combating Tel Aviv and Washington. The reality is that Syria is so embroiled in this hostile situation between different foreign powers attempting to extract different things from it that it is difficult to tell where the government is currently headed, and whether it will continue to follow a nationalist path or eventually adopt a more business-minded rather than ideologically driven approach. Ultimately, it seems the UAE will play a limited role in Syria for now, but only time will tell who gets the better of the other in this ever-expanding relationship.