It is in Jeddah that Bashar al-Assad enjoys his return to the Arab fold. But before Saudi Arabia, it was the United Arab Emirates that rolled out the red carpet for the Syrian president. The UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus on Dec. 27, 2018, six years after severing relations with Syria.
Following the crackdown of the 2011 protests which led to a civil war that killed over 500,000 people, the League of Arab States, as a whole, decided to revoke the Syrian Arab Republic’s membership. While Riyadh, a Gulf heavyweight, recently took center stage in the efforts to bring the Damascus regime back into the pan-Arab organization, It is the UAE that is actually spearheading the effort.
What are the reasons behind this initiative? Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political scientist based in Dubai, close to the government of the UAE, gives an assessment.
Why was the UAE the first country to pave the way for normalization with Syria?
The UAE was not only the leader of normalization with Syria. It was also the leader of normalization with Israel and of the dynamics of détente with Turkey. This means that Abu Dhabi decided to take the lead in the whole region. When it comes to Syria, its motives are based on a thorough examination of national realities after 10 years of war and on the conclusion that there is no longer any way to topple Assad, whether militarily or diplomatically. At the beginning of the revolution, we did everything we could, but today we face a new reality in Syria and the Arab world. There are 14 million Syrian refugees who need to return home and are tired of this war.
Abu Dhabi rolled out the red carpet for Bashar al-Assad in March and invited him to the COP28 that will be held in Dubai at the end of the year. However, all these honors are not accompanied by concrete concessions from Damascus...
The UAE is a country that values its independence and sovereignty and we decide the pace of our initiatives based on our assessment of the situation and our national interests. Once we made the decision to reach out to our adversary, we will go all the way. There is no turning back, and we must go full speed ahead. We did it with Erdogan. We did it with the Israelis. Also, the return of Syria to the Arab fold is part of this same frame of mind.
Earlier this year, media reports said that UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed, might attend the Russia-brokered ministerial meetings aimed at advancing Turkey-Syria ties. It was even said that Abu Dhabi offered to host the meeting, which eventually took place last week in Moscow, without the UAE’s participation, but with that of Iran. Do you know why?
The Syrian government has supported this initiative, but there was probably an objection from Iran. The Iranians do not want the Arab or Emirati presence in Damascus to increase so quickly. They would accept it gradually, but it might have been too much at once for them. But you know, Iran is one actor among many. And in many cases, it does not have full control over Syrian decisions, which are now intended to be more independent. The Iranians have to accept the fact that the Arab world is ready to re-engage with Syria and that no country in the world can stop this process initiated by the Arab countries. Not Iran, not America, not Europe. And this comes at a time when Damascus, which feels isolated and wants to regain legitimacy, desperately needs this extended hand. For Syria, normalization with Arab countries is a first step before European and eventually American engagement. We all heard that American diplomats meet with Syrians lately. I think the Europeans are also reconsidering their position on Syria. There were probably some unofficial meetings. Reintegration into the Arab League will probably open the door for everyone to recognize the new reality in Syria.
Isn't it mainly because the Arab countries want to contain the influence of Iran, which has established itself permanently in Syria?
Iran developed strong ties with Syria over the past 40 years, and there is no way they will disappear overnight. The Arabs don’t demand it, and the Syrians can’t — or won't. So we know that the Iranian presence will continue. But after ten years, the Syrian regime itself is beginning to see the strong Iranian presence in the country as a burden. They are coming to the Arabs seeking their help to reduce the Iranian influence somewhat. Not totally, but they say they don't need them as much as they did five or six years ago. What is at stake now is the dismantling of the Iranian militias. The Fatemiyoun [pro Assad Shiite Afghan brigade] and the Zainebiyoun [pro Assad Shiite Pakistani brigade] were asked to lower the Iranian flag in their camps. This is a step.
Isn’t this an opportunity for the Damascus regime to clear its name at little cost?
No one will forget or even forgive the atrocities committed by the Syrian regime. And the Arabs have done more than anyone to boycott it, expelling Bashar al-Assad from the Arab League and helping the opposition overthrow him. But you can hold on to that position forever and it won't change anything. It is a moral position, and maybe he will have to pay the price, but it will be up to the International Criminal Court to decide. Today, I think people are focusing on politics and looking to the future. After ten years of devastation, chaos, violence, and instability, we want to make the Middle East not a red zone, but a place where people can live in peace. So there is no reason for Arab countries to feel guilty and they are not ready to listen to lectures from outside. We do not want to interfere in Syria’s internal affairs, because it is none of our business how a government deals with its people.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. translation by Joelle El Khoury.
It is in Jeddah that Bashar al-Assad enjoys his return to the Arab fold. But before Saudi Arabia, it was the United Arab Emirates that rolled out the red carpet for the Syrian president. The UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus on Dec. 27, 2018, six years after severing relations with Syria.Following the crackdown of the 2011 protests which led to a civil war that killed over 500,000 people, the...