The United Arab Emirates (UAE)’s efforts to shore up the Syrian government have upset Washington. Although there is good reason to doubt that the US will sanction or penalize Abu Dhabi for attempting to “legitimize” President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the Syrian file has added friction to US-UAE relations.
One of Abu Dhabi’s strategies for selling its rapprochement with Damascus to Washington is to try to convince US officialdom that the UAE can bring Syria away from Iran’s orbit and weaken Tehran’s hand in the Arab world. But given how much influence Iran has over Damascus, and Assad’s indebtedness to Tehran, there are valid questions to raise about whether even the Emiratis genuinely believe this is possible.
A Decades-Old Alliance
Historical factors are critical. Iran’s support for the Ba’ath regime in Damascus during its times of isolation in the 20th and 21st centuries has made the Islamic Republic Syria’s most important Middle Eastern ally. Along with Russia, Iran has done much to protect the Syrian government since 2011. The Iranian military and Tehran-backed Shi’a militias from Afghanistan, Lebanon, Pakistan, and elsewhere made huge sacrifices in countless battles when defending Assad’s regime from its foreign and domestic enemies. Put simply, Damascus probably owes Tehran far too much for the UAE to drive Syria too far away from Tehran.
Along with Russia, Iran has done much to protect the Syrian government since 2011.
There were few governments worldwide which welcomed Iran’s 1979 revolution and actively backed Tehran in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). Hafez al-Assad worked with the Iranians against Saddam Hussein amid that conflict, which did much to secure Syria’s status as one of Iran’s special allies. Having felt betrayed by Egypt after Cairo made peace with Israel in the late 1970s and angry at the Shah of Iran for helping to facilitate the Camp David Accords, the former Syrian leader more than welcomed the rise of a new anti-American political order in Iran.
The Shah’s ouster and the establishment of Iran’s revolutionary government promised to reshape the region’s balance of power in ways that were favorable to Syria’s geopolitical interests. Still to this day, Iran plays a role in the Middle East that aligns with many of Damascus’ agendas. Thus, imagining the synergies between the two governments weakening in any notable way is difficult.
“The UAE’s rapprochement with Damascus is unlikely to fundamentally change Assad’s relationship with Tehran, which is a strategic, deeply-rooted bilateral relationship that stretches back decades and is based on a shared sense of existential threat,” explained Mona Yacoubian, a senior adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace, in an interview with Inside Arabia.
“I don’t think Assad will break with Iran, no matter what the Emiratis promise him,” said Barbara Slavin, the director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, to Inside Arabia. “This relationship dates back decades and is also influenced by the power of Hezbollah in both Lebanon and Syria.”
“I don’t think Assad will break with Iran, no matter what the Emiratis promise him.”
Other experts assess similarly. “Only Iran and Russia can be consistently relied on to act as [Assad’s] effective allies when they are needed,” Camille Otrakji, a Damascus-born, Montreal-based Syria specialist, told Inside Arabia. “Inversely, the United States, along with its European and Middle Eastern allies (apart from Oman), have proven to be highly unpredictable, if not frequently hostile [to Syria’s government]. The leadership in Damascus is risk averse; this is a trait that will not easily change.”
Washington’s Financial War Against Assad
There are obstacles to a stronger Emirati-Syrian relationship that would make it difficult for Abu Dhabi to begin offering Damascus enough to prompt Assad to consider distancing his country from the Islamic Republic. With the US imposing the Caesar Act on Syria, countries like the UAE are subject to the US’s secondary sanctions, which have deterred them from investing in Syria’s reconstruction and redevelopment. Iran, on the other hand, already so heavily sanctioned by the US, is not deterred from trading with Syria and investing in its economy because the Iranians have nothing to lose in terms of access to US markets.
Therefore, it is difficult to see the UAE replacing Iran as an economic partner so long as the Caesar Act restricts the UAE. “The UAE’s rapprochement with Syria would need to expand significantly if it were to create a meaningful distance between Damascus and Tehran,” said Dr. Annelle Sheline, a research fellow in the Middle East program at the Quincy Institute, in an interview with Inside Arabia.
It is difficult to see the UAE replacing Iran as an economic partner while the Caesar Act restricts the UAE.
There is good reason to conclude that the UAE’s rapprochement with Assad’s government will advance – not hinder – Iranian interests in Syria. Having invested much blood and treasure into propping up Syria’s government, Tehran has reason to welcome powerful and influential Arab states “legitimizing” Assad.
Within this context, an adviser to the Iranian Supreme Leader expressing support for Abu Dhabi’s outreach to Damascus at last month’s Doha Forum was unsurprising. Nonetheless, there might not be a consensus on the UAE-Syria rapprochement in Tehran.
“Different elements within the government in Tehran likely view Emirati outreach differently: hardliners may feel suspicious of the effort as only intended to reduce Iran’s influence in Syria, while those more inclined to reduce tensions with Arab neighbors may see Syria’s reintegration into the fold of Arab nations as offering another opportunity for broader regional diplomacy,” opined Sheline.
Yacoubian stated that Abu Dhabi’s rapprochement with Assad is “double-edged” for the Islamic Republic. “On the one hand, it allows Tehran’s powerful and rich regional rival to make inroads into Syria, potentially influencing Assad on certain issues while also holding out the possibility of Emirati ‘soft power’ projection with the Syrian people, necessarily countering Iranian influence which often runs counter to popular sentiments,” she said. “On the other hand, the rapprochement potentially opens the way for broader regional acceptance of a Syria with strong Iranian presence, a rising tide that lifts Iran as well as Syria.”
For now, Emirati support for Assad’s government is largely about symbolism.
For now, Emirati support for Assad’s government is largely about symbolism and ideational synergies between Abu Dhabi and Damascus’ leaders. Both Arab states loathe the Muslim Brotherhood and share interests in returning the Arab region to the pre-2011 period of “authoritarian stability” in which Islamists do not have the means to gain power in pluralistic political systems. Abu Dhabi’s outreach to Assad also contributes to a stronger UAE-Russia partnership which has made the Gulf Arab country more autonomous from Western capitals.
With a creative foreign policy that often sets examples for other Arab states, the UAE has its own interests in bringing Syria back to the Arab region’s diplomatic fold. Realistically, however, even if the Emiratis would like to lure Assad away from Iran, achieving this goal could prove extremely difficult in practice.
The odds are good that Tehran will see Abu Dhabi’s pro-Assad position as useful in terms of consolidating Iranian clout in Syria. As Slavin put it: “A reduction in Syria’s isolation is good for Iran.”