A visit by the United Arab Emirates’ top diplomat this week may have turned a page for Syria’s embattled autocratic president, enabling more Arab countries to re-engage with Bashar Assad.
That would be a major shift in a region that for a decade ostracized Assad, supported his adversaries and worked with the U.S. to seek a negotiated settlement of the Syria conflict.
Syria’s civil war has displaced half of its population, killed hundreds of thousands and driven the country’s economy into the ground.
Following his surprise four-hour trip to Syria’s capital of Damascus on Tuesday, the Emirati foreign minister headed to Jordan, which has also reopened channels with Syria after a decade-long rupture.
In Amman, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan met Wednesday with Jordan’s King Abdullah II and the two discussed “efforts to reach political solutions to the crisis in the region,” a royal court statement said.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi later told CNN that the kingdom, which had hosted Assad’s armed opposition for years, needed to be practical and consider its national interests, at a time when a resolution to the Syria conflict seems elusive.
Jordan has been hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and is experiencing a sharp economic downturn, including rising unemployment. It recently reopened its borders with Syria, exchanged state visits and restored flights between Amman and Damascus.
If such contacts between Syria and some of the Arab nations lead to formal reconciliation, it would be a boon for Syria’s struggling economy, including a tanking national currency and dried up government coffers. Syria will also require massive investments in reconstruction.
Rapprochement would also mean an Arab push into Syria, where Iran — the main rival of Arab Gulf nations — has had a presence on the ground through proxy militias for years.
As Washington appears to be disengaging from the region, withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and reorienting its focus toward the strategic challenges posed by a rising China, Arab players are stepping up their game in the conflict-ridden region.
“Everyone is talking to everyone,” said one Arab diplomat based in the Middle East, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. For example, Iraq has been hosting talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia, its regional archival.
Now the Emirates’ embrace of Syria is a test for whether re-engaging Syria’s strongman could possibly lead to some concessions that years of sanctions and boycott have failed to realize.
Bringing Syria back into the Arab fold could reduce Iranian and Turkish influence. Dealing with Assad, whose forces have been blamed for most of the war’s atrocities, appears to be a risk worth taking as the Emiratis seek to hedge their bets in the region.
“If we can have peace with various countries, Syria should be one of the most significant and important ones in the Middle East,” said Amjad Taha, an Emirati analyst. “Syria should not be left alone. If the Iranians are there and if the Russians are there, so should the Arabs.”
The Emirates are pursuing high-stakes foreign policy, normalizing relations with Israel and taking steps to engage Qatar and Turkey diplomatically after years of a political standoff, vitriol and support for opposing sides in regional conflicts.
Syria’s ruling party mouthpiece hailed the visit of the Emirati foreign minister as a “genuine pan-Arab step” after what it described as years of illusions that Assad and his government could be replaced through war.
The Emirates have been lobbying in international forums such as the World Health Organization for more aid for Syria and could expand such calls. The UAE could also encourage Syrian-Emirati businesses if there are no threats of the use of sanctions to block it.
Arab countries will be watching to see what the Emirates get out of this resumption of relations before rushing in.
There are already Emirati-led efforts to lobby Arab countries to bring Syria back into the Arab League, said Taha, the analyst, calling it a major effort despite few Arab objections. The next summit is in Algeria early next year.
Damascus could offer gestures that indicate a reduction in Iranian influence.
Russia, another major Syrian ally, has already expanded its presence in some areas of Syria at the expense of Iran, either to assuage Israel or the United States but mostly in the interest of improving its grip on affairs in Syria.
“The Syria that we knew is over,” said Ibrahim Hamidi, a London-based Syrian journalist who covers domestic affairs for the Saudi-based Ashraq al-Awsat newspaper. “The Syria that could play a regional role is over. Syria is destroyed and is busy with its own problems.”
Syria’s opposition and Washington could put a damper on this new direction. Assad himself could also scuttle this new open embrace, by either failing to offer any concessions or by seeking to play different actors against one another.
U.S. sanctions could put a limit on how far everyone can go and could be used as a tool to block investment.
Joel Rayburn, former U.S. envoy to Syria and a fellow at the New America Foundation, said efforts to normalize relations with Syria will always be limited by the U.S.’s unwillingness to see Assad rehabilitated and by “Assad’s permanent unwillingness to do the bare minimum the ‘normalizers’ require to justify their appeasement.”