July has so far been an interesting month for Syria’s Assad. In just a matter of days he watched as the EU’s foreign policy mandarin made a statement about its willingness to support Syria, along with strict conditions of course.
This beguiling statement from Joseph Borrell more or less coincided with a leaked email from the UAE which shows how desperate Abu Dhabi is in Libya as it resorts to practically begging Washington to join the parody of a proxy war, which, itself, is interesting given how much time and money UAE royals are spending on another proxy war in Syria – offering Assad cash which neither the Russians nor the Iranians could muster.
Syria seems to be a focal point once again not just of the West but also of the Gulf Arab states led by Mohamed bin Zayed himself.
The country, now left battered by nine years of war and facing fresh new sanctions under the Caesar Act (named after the Syrian photographer who documented gruesome war crimes in a dossier of tens of thousands of photographs which made its way into CIA hands earlier on in the war), is facing a bleak future under Assad. The Syrian leader certainly won the war once Russia joined the campaign in late 2015. But winning the peace is proving to be impossible as its eviscerated economy has barely left anything for Putin, Assad, or his cronies – let alone the people of this vast country whose capital was once considered the center of the entire Arab world.
Syria is sinking to new levels of poverty not seen before, making its leader and its regime easy pickings for circling falcons of regional superpowers.
Syria is sinking to new levels of poverty not seen before, making its leader and its regime easy pickings for circling falcons of regional superpowers. And from the point of view of the UAE, which has perhaps bitten off more than it can chew in Libya, Syria becomes increasingly alluring, given that its last battlefield is with Turkey, and Assad is so desperate for old fashioned cash. Libya is complicated, harder, and drawn out. Syria is do-able. Assad is good to go.
The writing on the wall has been there since March when the London-based Qatar friendly news website Middle East Eye had a scoop about a deal offered to Assad by the UAE.
On March 27, 2020, Mohamed bin Zayed (MbZ) tweeted about a telephone exchange with Bashar al-Assad, their first since the demise of diplomatic relations between the UAE and Syria in 2012.
Two weeks later, Middle East Eye revealed the details of the deal between the leader of the UAE and his Syrian counterpart. “The report claims that MbZ offered Assad $3 billion [USD] in exchange for a resumption of fighting in Idlib, the Syrian province bordering Turkey, where a fragile cease-fire has been in place since an accord between Ankara and Moscow on [March 6, 2020],” it read.
The Syrian war has made factions and regional players shift their allegiances in nine years. But it’s as though the UAE can count on Assad to always consider Erdogan and Turkey as enemies, regardless of how things settle, which is music to the ears of UAE leaders.
The UAE not only provides aid, but also has rebuilt many public institutions, as well as more recently providing military coaching for the Syrian regime.
And so, the UAE not only provides aid, but also has rebuilt many public institutions (like power stations and water works), as well as more recently providing military coaching for the Syrian regime which involves some Syrian officers going to the UAE for training.
Yet does this new player in Syria bring Syria closer to the West, which holds the real key to investment and reconstruction? And does the UAE proximity to Assad dampen the polarized and dangerous game that he has been playing with the Russians and Iran in the country? Until now, Assad has resisted all efforts by Putin to bring opposition parties in from the cold and present Syria to the international community as a peacetime country which the West can do business with – with Putin at the center of that vortex of fresh money.
Perhaps for Assad to team up with MbZ seems like a smart move. To drive a wedge between his own two regional allies who have won the war for him – Iran and Russia – is to gain what he may perceive as more power. But is there time left? With the currency in freefall and the Assads moving to snatch wealth from their high rolling supporters continuously making the news, one has to wonder if we are witnessing the slow downfall of this dynasty and MbZ’s curtain call performance as a regional player is too little too late. Of course the firebrand UAE leader is patiently waiting for the opportunity to strike Turkey and he has an impressive arsenal of hardware and probably the most disciplined soldiers of the entire region at his disposal.
But the problem is that in the haze of corona-dominated news and media being obsessed with Libya, many pundits have taken their eye off the ball and not seen how the UAE is drifting away from the West and becoming an island all on its own – not unlike those fake sand islands which were built in Dubai and have just sat there as failed real estate businesses since 2013.
Not only is the UAE breaking away from the traditional polarized hegemony mould, it’s also rapidly running out of cash
And not only is the UAE breaking away from the traditional polarized hegemony mould, it’s also rapidly running out of cash.
The UAE in recent months has had to weather US sanctions over its business dealings with Iran and now just recently has been clobbered by new measures by the US over its dealings with Assad. Given that its economy is in such a bad state that, for the first time, expats are actually selling cars and property to leave as a $40 billion US dollar tourist revenue disappears with them (due to corona) one has to ponder how much longer can the UAE take the battering. Certainly, all indications signal that it is losing its hopes in Libya. Is it that Syria is a confidence booster its mystifying leader needs to kid himself that it has a hegemony to speak of? Syria seems like low hanging fruit. And cheap, at least if Caesar Act sanctions are not taken into account.
In recent weeks, through the fog of corona calamity stories about the Gulf States – and in particular the UAE which has been hit particularly hard – we saw reports about the UAE’s space program and its imminent launch of a new spacecraft which will make it to Mars. Many might be wondering what planet the Emirates are on when such news appears on the same page as the near collapse of the economy, the Libya crisis, and the Yemen peace process waning amidst UAE-backed separatists seizing control of key locations like Socotra, while its fighters are blamed for reneging on a 2019 peace deal.
Of course much of what we read anyway about MbZ and the UAE might not even be true. July also was a month which revealed that the maverick cyber war campaign of the UAE was deeper than previously thought.
The Daily Beast revealed that the UAE was responsible for 19 fake “journalists” who published 90 opinion pieces in 46 publications recently.
The Daily Beast revealed that the UAE was responsible for 19 fake “journalists” who published 90 opinion pieces in 46 publications recently, with one infamous character called Raphael Badani causing red faces at a number of top US websites, even the Washington Examiner. Badani doesn’t exist and was cooked up by the UAE who took his profile picture from a businessman’s blog in San Diego, the Beast claims. For how else to explain his epic pieces which praise the UAE to no end, but also hammer Qatar and Turkey with such vociferous criticism?
However, if we are to believe what is being reported now about the UAE and Assad’s Syria, MbZ is playing a double game, exactly the same way that the Russians have a foot in both camps in Libya. MbZ too plays the role of Assad’s friend with amicable relations with the two giants by his side – Iran and Russia. But like any fair-weather friend, he will also seek to befriend a successor in the event of the Syrian leader losing the popular vote.
Still, before we rush to write the well-worn clichés of Assad’s downfall, we should remember that western commentators have persistently under-estimated Assad’s stoic ability to survive, even running on an empty tank. Watch very carefully if MbZ finances himself further restructuring with his own cash, exactly like Putin did before. Humanitarian aid, which Assad can play politically, for example, might give an indication to the depth of this friendship. Finally, if developments in Yemen (where UAE is a player in the South)— which could benefit Putin who longs for a naval port there — have a dynamic in how Assad’s so-called allies help him rebuild Syria.
* The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Inside Arabia.