Strongest expression of government support to date might signal a shift by other Gulf states
After eight years, fractures in the Gulf states’ sequestration of the Syrian regime are starting to emerge.
Abdul-Hakim Naimi, the current top UAE diplomat to Syria, announced support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at a United Arab Emirates national day ceremony in Damascus December 3.
This is the first time Abu Dhabi has officially signaled support for the Syrian government to win the civil war that Assad has been embroiled in since 2011. The UAE only resumed diplomatic relations with Syria in late December 2018.
Paul McLoughlin, author of The New Arab’s Syria Weekly report says that the UAE has had a better relationship throughout the conflict with Assad than other Gulf states like Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
“This than an official admission of what was always known – the two countries maintained ties despite the Syrian regime being largely isolated from most other Arab countries,” McLoughlin told The Media Line.
He also said that the UAE’s announcement yesterday fell on the backdrop of local media outlets reporting that the UAE had agreed to Syria’s request to send a wanted Syrian businessman back to Damascus.
McLoughlin contends that the UAE and Syria’s relationship is grounded in their shared interest of combating Islamist extremists.
“Essentially, the main factor in the UAE’s cooperation with the regime is that both countries are opposed to political Islamism, and in particular the Muslim Brotherhood,” he told The Media Line.
According to Michael Horowitz, head of intelligence for Le Beck, a Gulf-based geopolitical and security consultancy, the UAE also wants to continue to improve diplomatic relations to counter the strong Iranian presence in the Syria.
“The main goal, in my opinion, is to work on improving ties with the Assad regime to decrease Iran’s influence over the Syrian regime,” he told The Media Line. “The UAE may even go beyond and try to give Assad some actual economic incentives in a bid to drive a wedge between Damascus and Tehran.”
Syria’s economy has crumbled under the weight of US sanctions and is in need of external economic infusions, which the UAE could provide, in addition to income from trade.
Syria’s government, in turn, gets a political boost, which might result in more Gulf countries rekindling their relationship with Assad. Bahrain has already reopened its embassy in Syria and the Jordanian parliament’s lower house created a Friendship Committee last year with Damascus.
“The UAE’s official step to more vocally support the Syrian regime gives Assad some additional legitimacy,” Horowitz said. “More importantly, it does create some dynamic in favor of a normalization of ties with the regime and represents a [crack] in the already weakened … Arab consensus regarding Assad’s exclusion.”
Restoring ties with Gulf countries is also bolstered by Assad’s crackdown on groups like Islamic State.
“Stability, associated with prosperity, is a key in shaping Syria relations with the Gulf states including the UAE,” Saeed Alwahabi, a Saudi-based Middle East North Africa fellow at the nonprofit think tank EastWest Institute, told The Media Line. “As Bashar’s regime continues to counter terrorism and stabilize the northern parts of the countries, Gulf states will continue to gradually expand their bilateral relations.”
Dr. Hassan Marhig, an expert in Middle Eastern and Syrian affairs, believes that even Saudi Arabia, the ringleader in suspending Syria from the Arab League, might restore ties with Syria with the US’s backing.
Russian has amped up its presence in Syria in the absence of a strong American willingness to get involved in another Middle East conflict. The US has instead relied on regional proxies such as the House of Saud.
“I think that the Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia … will return to Syria, but even this is linked to Washington’s desire … due to geopolitical considerations with Russia, a strategic ally of the Syrian state.”
However, The New Arab’s McLoughlin is not sure whether the other Gulf countries will follow in the UAE’s footsteps, particularly those that had a worse relationship with Assad than the UAE did.
“Qatar made it clear that it so no need or reason to end its political boycott of the regime. … [What] Saudi Arabia might do is open to question, although such a move would not benefit the kingdom’s image in the region and due to its backing for rebel groups and opposition to the regime during the war, it would likely be treated with suspicion by Damascus even if it re-established ties.”
The EastWest Institute’s Alwahabi contends that if Assad continues to govern as he is now, these US partners might even be let back into the Arab League.
“…Rejoining the Arab League is conditional to a continuous and acceptable level of stability.”
Eighteen of 22 member states voted to suspend Syria from the body eight years ago over Assad’s actions against civilians during the war.
Marhig, however, is more skeptical.
“The issue of the Arab League was shortened by President al-Assad saying that the return to the Arab League must be under specific conditions, the most important of which is the apology to the Syrian people before the Syrian leadership, and this is a strong position and a red line,” he said.