The high-paced rapport between Arab countries and Turkey with the Assad regime has raised many questions about the motives behind and objectives of this rapprochement and the expected yield of these visits.
The U.S. and global refraining from intervening to find a political solution to the disastrous situation in Syria encouraged Arab countries and Turkey to look for an alternative mechanism to resolve the Syrian crisis in a way that ensures their interests. This mechanism is based on the notion that opening channels of communication with the Syrian regime has become a necessity, hoping that the regime would be capable of responding to and working with them to find solutions to the issues these countries are having with the regime as a result of the way it responded to the revolution such as the refugees’ problem, the Iranian presence and drug smuggling—all as a priority. They seek to know whether the regime is serious about handling these issues rather than resolving the regime’s problems with the Syrian people.
Turkey and the UAE have reached out to the U.S., asking it to be more serious when addressing the Syrian civil war. However, they didn’t find a useful answer or see a good initiative. As a result, they were encouraged to move forward with their policy of rapprochement despite their awareness that they are unable to provide the regime with the necessary financial assistance, thereby possessing the ability to exert influence on it due to sanctions. Yet, Iran’s influence on the regime is so massive that neither Arabs nor Turkey will be able to achieve the desired results. Nonetheless, the two sides continued with their attempts at rapprochement, hoping that their assistance to the regime to return to the global stage with the help of Russia would encourage it to change the way it addresses the domestic uprising.
In this article, we will speak further on the UAE’s set of mind.
The UAE’s approach to this issue is based on several points:
First: It wouldn’t be helpful (for Arabs) to let Iran seize control of Syria while Arabs not having a foothold that curbs the Iranian clout there.
Second: The U.S.-Chinese dispute will escalate in the coming period. There should be the least figment of cooperation among Arabs in order for them not to pay the price of this dispute. Therefore, realistic solutions should be found to problems and crises—according to the UAE point of view—in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq.)
Third: The UAE refuses to work to topple the Syrian regime and its state apparatuses.
Fourth: The UAE sees that there are no Syrian opposition forces which command influence on the ground or among the Syrians with whom it can work.
Fifth: The UAE believes that it’s necessary to find a solution that achieves the countries influencing the Syrian crisis—at least as a first stage.
Sixth: The UAE communicates with several Syrians living on its soil or having close ties with it to develop ideas related to resolving the Syrian crisis. Given the absence of political opposition institutions and the Syrian opposition’s lacking figures and official rhetoric that find acceptance among the Syrians, it remains unknown how those figures will influence the UAE’s handling of the Syrian crisis and whether the UAE will place any of the Syrian people’s priorities among its demands from the regime.
Among the official proposals being floated is the administrative redistribution of the Syrian territory to become six administrative regions instead of the current provincial system. Each administrative region will represent the interests of a certain country in Syria. For example, Quneitra, As-Suwayda, and Deraa governorates will be included in one administrative region that represents and protects Jordan, the Gulf States and Israel’s interests from the Iranian clout and drug smuggling. Similarly, Deir Ezzor, Al-Raqqa and Al-Hasakah will be brought together in one administrative region that protects the U.S. interests in the region.
The proposed steps to be taken to approach the Syrian crisis (among other files) were discussed at the summit that took place in the UAE and brought together the leaders of the Sultanate of Oman, Egypt, Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain and Jordan on January 18, 2023.
Though Saudi Arabia didn’t attend the summit, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan February 18th, 2023, at the Munich Conference, expressed the outcomes of the summit in the UAE, “You will see a growing consensus not only among the GCC countries but also in the Arab world that the status quo is unsustainable.”
He added: Given the lack of a way to achieve the “maximum goals” for a political solution, another approach “began to take shape” to address the issue of Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries and the suffering of civilians, especially after the devastating earthquake in Syria and Turkey.”
“This should come to pass through dialogue with the government in Damascus at a time that at least allows the achievement of the more important objectives, particularly about the humanitarian aspects, the return of refugees and so forth,” the top Saudi diplomat noted.
The U.S. has been briefed on the steps Arab countries intend to take concerning the Assad regime. Washington has rejected these steps since it’s convinced that the regime lacks seriousness about implementing them. At the same time, the U.S. didn’t oppose continuing these communications with the regime while reiterating that the sanctions imposed on the regime have more of a legal than political dimension. The U.S. has reiterated that these sanctions cannot be bypassed within the current realities and that the normalization with the regime cannot be gratuitous.
The disastrous earthquakes have accelerated the steps taken by these countries to open channels of communication with the Assad regime. The visit of Ismail Qaani, commander of the Quds Forces in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, to Aleppo and Latakia without any official Syrian escort sounded the alarm for these countries, and that their project would collapse before it could even begin because of this visit and the messages it carries that Iran wields the real power and control over the regime-held parts of Syria. Yet, Assad’s later appearance in the same regions visited by Qaani—without announcing any humanitarian emergency, mourning or sympathy with the quick-hit Syrian people inside Syria—was also a warning.
On the contrary, Assad has gloated over the Syrians’ suffering, which accelerated the UAE foreign minister’s visit to Turkey. He called on the Syrian president to take swift measures to assist Arab countries in their pursuit to re-integrate the regime into the international community and show it as worthy of respect and dialogue.
During this visit, the UAE official agreed with the regime that it would open two additional crossings as a humanitarian message toward its own people. Assad was also given a handwritten letter on political dialogue as a political message to the international community.
After his visit to Damascus, the UAE foreign minister visited Washington and asked the U.S. to give Arab nations a chance to ascertain whether the Assad regime was serious. He also pointed to the issue of opening crossings and the conversation he had with Assad, considering it an encouraging but insufficient step.
For its part, Washington has stuck to its position that dealing with the Assad regime is useless and that sanctions imposed on it—and whosoever committed human rights violations and used chemical weapons–cannot be bypassed. The U.S. also reiterated that it’s not ready to seriously engage in the Syrian issue, but it won’t impede any attempts by Arab countries in this respect.
The regime has leaked the reports of Assad’s visit to the Sultanate of Oman to make him appear victorious. The head of Syria’s regime was officially received to show that he still has legitimacy—at least among Arab nations. The Sultanate of Oman did not cut off its diplomatic relations with the regime since the beginning of the revolution. However, it did not adopt a position hostile to the regime—unlike the rest of the Gulf states. Clear messages or requests were conveyed to the head of the Syrian regime from the Omani side in the closed-door meeting. Based on the regime’s ability to meet these unannounced requests, the situation will be assessed, and either the next step will be taken, or the attempt (at rapport with the regime) will be stopped.
To conclude, the Syrians don’t have a voice in these political talks, and the demands presented to the regime remain unknown despite the many forecasts. Yet, the steps the regime should take and what these countries would give to the regime in return remain unclear. Additionally, there’s no timeframe for these moves, with the legitimate political opposition absent from the scene, which gives the Syrian regime gratuitous strength and enables these countries to skip the opposition factions and pay no heed to the Syrian people’s demands.
Bassam Barabandi is a former Syrian diplomat and the co-founder and director of external relations of People Demand Change. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Syrian Observer.