The United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) foreign minister, Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, visited Syria on November 9 and met with President Bashar al-Assad. The visit, the first of its kind since the eruption of Syria’s ongoing civil war, is a strong indication of a burgeoning rapprochement between Abu Dhabi and Damascus.
The meeting came about a month after Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan spoke over the phone with President Assad. During his meeting with the Syrian President, Abdullah bin Zayed stressed his country’s “keenness on the security, stability and unity of Syria,” according to the UAE’s state-run news agency (WAM). He also underlined the “UAE’s support for all efforts made to end the Syrian crisis, consolidate stability in the country, and meet the aspirations of the brotherly Syrian people.”
While at the beginning of the conflict, the UAE had been among the countries which supported the Syrian opposition seeking to oust Assad, it has gradually moderated its stance over the years. In 2018, for instance, the UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus. Since then, there have been increased signs of a rapprochement between the two countries.
There are various possible drivers for the UAE foreign minister’s visit to Syria, which comes as the latest development in an ongoing UAE-Syria rapprochement.
First is the UAE’s anti-political Islam approach. Assad had also opposed the ideology, hailing in 2013 “the fall of political Islam” when then-Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, the first democratically elected president of Egypt, was ousted by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Since both Abu Dhabi and Damascus are aligned against political-Islam, the UAE recognized that strengthening its ties with Assad could help in curbing the Islamists in Syria.
Since both Abu Dhabi and Damascus are aligned against political-Islam, the UAE may have recognized that strengthening its ties with Assad could help in curbing the Islamists in Syria, thus achieving the UAE’s apparent objective of containing the Islamist parties’ influence across the region.
Second, the UAE has an interest in curbing Iran’s and Turkey’s regional leverage. Indeed, Abu Dhabi seems willing to reduce tensions with regional rivals, such as Tehran and Ankara. This comes amid what is a larger attempt to de-escalate tensions in the region. The main driving factor of this effort is the impression given by the United States that it is willing to focus on its contest with China in other regions, and therefore, seeking to minimize its presence in the Middle East.
A downsizing of the US presence may have worried some of Washington’s regional partners about the extent to which the U.S. would support them from an external threat, mainly when the unconditional support they received from President Donald Trump has been curtailed with President Joe Biden’s arrival at the White House. Such concerns may have been reinforced by Biden’s withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, even though his predecessor was the instigator of such withdrawal.
Nevertheless, this does not mean that the UAE will be content with Iran or Turkey increasing their influence in the region. David Lesch, professor of Middle East History at Trinity University in Texas, told Inside Arabia that “The UAE’s interest in Syria is geo-strategic, particularly in terms of trying to limit the Iranian footprint in the country as well as to put Turkey on notice that there is growing Arab support for Assad and therefore [the UAE is] hoping to limit Ankara’s options in Syria.”
Indeed, Abdullah bin Zayed’s visit to Syria comes while other countries in the region, such as Jordan, are also embarked on a rapprochement with Assad. For Amman, one motivating element behind strengthening its ties with Damascus is distancing Assad from Tehran. Predictably, countries such as the UAE are ostensibly backing such a move, which explains how Abu Dhabi’s closeness to Damascus is also linked to Tehran’s influence in the region.
Abu Dhabi’s closeness to Damascus is also linked to Tehran’s influence in the region.
Yet Assad is unlikely to significantly distance himself from Iran anytime soon, though if he does, Russia will probably be thrilled. It is no secret that there is a competition between Moscow and Tehran for influence in Syria. This contest is shaped by the two countries’ “divergent and rival mechanisms for exerting” leverage in the country. They also do not share an identical approach for Syria’s future.
If the civil war ended, they would be “competing for reconstruction contracts.” Nevertheless, Russia is aware of Syria’s importance to Iran for the latter to expand its regional influence. It would not want this to negatively impact the political alignment between the two countries and Moscow’s arms deals with Tehran.
Moreover, while both Russia and Iran want their alliance to endure, their continuous coordination has played a role in enabling them to manage post-conflict obstacles in war-torn Syria.
Third, Abu Dhabi and Damascus agreed in October on “future plans to enhance economic cooperation and explore new sectors.” Since Syria’s economy has been ever more fragile, such cooperation is particularly important to Damascus. Assad would want the UAE’s financial support to reconstruct the country, chiefly since the crippled economy has been an obstacle for such reconstruction.
Washington’s and some regional states’ views
Until now, the current U.S. administration does not appear to have finalized its policy regarding Syria. Unsurprisingly, US officials were displeased at the UAE foreign minister’s meeting with Assad.
In a regular press briefing, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said, “We are concerned by reports of this meeting and the signal it sends,” adding, “As we’ve said before, this administration will not express any support for efforts to normalize or to rehabilitate Bashar al-Assad who is a brutal dictator.”
In the U.S. Congress, there has also been frustration among both Republican and Democrat lawmakers regarding Arab states normalizing ties with the Syrian government even before bin Zayed’s meeting with Assad.
While the U.S. gives the impression that it is willing to minimize its presence in the Middle East, this has not changed its desire to isolate Assad. Nevertheless, Washington’s response to the UAE-Syria rapprochement will not be major. Reasons for this go beyond the fact that Syria does not constitute a top priority for Washington.
“Befriending Israel and at least gaining what is probably its tacit support UAE policies in Syria can help a great deal to mitigate potential US opposition.”
According to Lesch, whose most recent book is Syria: A Modern History, “Both the Saudis and the Israelis are supportive of the UAE in its attempts to improve relations with Damascus. I also think that the UAE is finding out what many other countries have discovered over the years, i.e., that befriending Israel and at least gaining what is probably its tacit support for UAE policies in Syria can help a great deal to mitigate potential US opposition,” Lesch told Inside Arabia.
Lesch added: “I don’t think the Biden administration is thrilled with any effort to help Assad come in from the cold, so to speak, but it is not going to block these efforts either, especially as they are leverage points against Iran in Syria and have the support of Washington’s allies in the region.”
Thus, while Syria looks increasingly close to restoring its seat at the Arab League after being expelled from the organization in the aftermath of the civil war’s eruption, not much is to be expected from the Biden administration regarding the recent normalization efforts.
Some link Abu Dhabi’s desire to strengthen its ties with Assad with the peace treaties that some Arab states, including the UAE, signed with Israel. Indeed, the relationship between Syria and Israel was generally tense over the years. Yet the two still managed to sit around the table more than once. However, it appears unrealistic that Damascus and Tel Aviv would sign a peace treaty at this stage.
As Lesch put it, “Any sort of rapprochement between Israel and Syria is a tough mountain to climb. At the very least, the return of the Golan Heights to Syrian control has to be on the table, but the Israelis are not even going to think about this unless there are guarantees for reducing Iran’s footprint in Syria and, especially, ending Syrian support for Hezbollah.”
Lesch admits this is an implausible scenario, particularly in light of the Trump administration recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. According to him, before the civil war, Syria and Israel were considering a deal under the proper conditions. “Perhaps with persuasive diplomacy —especially the financial kind— from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others, with US approval and an easing of sanctions against Syria, Damascus could be swayed away from Teheran, thus setting up the parameters for a peace deal with Israel,” he explained.
All told, the UAE has various regional interests that are pushing it to solidify its ties with Assad. Meanwhile, Assad seems mostly financially motivated in his rapprochement with the UAE, although Damascus and Tel Aviv are unlikely to proceed with a peace treaty anytime soon. What remains to be seen is the extent to which the UAE-Syria ties deepen over time.