In his first visit to an Arab state since the beginning of the war in 2011, the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, met on March 18th with the UAE leaders, causing a lot of controversy in political circles regarding the reasons behind the visit, especially after years of estrangement.
The visit came amid several issues, most notably the Russia-Ukraine war and the 11th anniversary of the Syrian uprising.
After the Syrian revolution, which broke out in 2011 with the aim of toppling the government, failed to make any progress, the long years of the war were sufficient enough to make foreign countries change their relationship with Damascus.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the bloody war, which displaced millions of Syrians. Large parts of Syria, including significant infrastructure, have been destroyed and reconstruction would cost tens of billions of dollars. The conflict has also created the ground from which ISIS has evolved.
After years of estrangement by other countries, many of them are, albeit disproportionately, back on the road to Damascus. These countries include the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, and Jordan, in addition to some countries in Europe that expressed their will to reopen their embassies in Damascus.
Reading through the protocol
By reading between the lines, the way the UAE received al-Assad shows that it dealt with him as an official and not as a president, as he accepted the fact that he was received without an honor guard or an official reception at the airport, as a sign that he “desires to open a communication channel and is not the one who is invited to do it.”
In a time where it is customary for leaders to be received by their counterparts when they arrive at their airport, Assad was received by a minister in the Emirate of Dubai, followed by the ruler of Dubai, then later by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, the president of UAE.
Although this reception is considered as an achievement in itself by Assad, especially after years of isolation, the way the reception went down sends a diminishing message to Damascus.
It also sends a message that “it is too early to open the doors wide to accept Assad without concessions, and another message indicates that he is being led to carry out such a visit, mostly by the Russians.”
After the UAE leaders’ visit to Moscow
The visit by Assad comes days after the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the UAE, Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, met his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov in Moscow.
In the meeting, Nahyan expressed his country’s interest in discussing various crises around the world, such as Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, the Sahel, and the Sahara in Africa.
A video clip circulated by several media outlets showed what Sheikh Abdullah said during his meeting with his Russian counterpart, “There is always something important and something developmental in the relationship between the Russian Federation and the United Arab Emirates”.
Stagnation in the U.S.-Gulf relations
The Russian-Emirati meetings came in the midst of the Russian war on Ukraine and amid talk of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s refusal to bow to U.S. pressure regarding high-value oil after the invasion of Ukraine.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE are still facing U.S. pressure to increase the pumping of oil into the global market to prevent new expected increases in its prices, which have reached less than $140 per barrel.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE haven’t been willing to clearly take sides with Washington as UAE abstained from a U.S.-led resolution to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the UN Security Council.
The UAE abstained from voting in the United Nations Security Council against the Russian attack, while media reports indicate that one of the most prominent factors behind the Saudi and Emirati disengagement is “the removal of the Biden administration of the Houthis from the global terrorism list, and negotiations with Iran in order to revive the resumption of the nuclear agreement.”
These differences prompted the Gulf to approach Moscow, especially since the Gulf states reiterate their commitment to the OPEC+ agreement on the quantities of oil production, which it leads alongside Russia, the largest supporter of Assad.
Opposition’s structure and acceptability have a role
Furthermore, the indications of the gradual Arab openness may be to prefer the bad over the worst, after the armed opposition disappointed the Arab regimes, as they were involved in Turkish battles on the one hand, and were extremist on the other.
Observers explain that most of the Arab countries that restored their relations with Syria came after the lack of opportunities to topple the government militarily in light of the Russian and Iranian support, and in order to avoid further tension in their relations with the two supporting countries.
Others believe that the opposition, which turned from peaceful to a political entity under Turkish flags, pushed many to prefer Damascus over other opposition factions, and saw it that it would be better for them to re-normalize relations with the Syrian government.
It is no secret that Russia and Iran, as the closest allies of Damascus, supported Bashar al-Assad during the periods of isolation of the “Syrian regime”, and supported his attempt to remain in power. The auxiliary entities in the region, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and some Iraqi factions, did so.
The U.S. and Western European countries, however, led a different approach, as they completely rejected normalization with Damascus, except for their support for humanitarian relief projects.
Washington reiterated in several forums, most recently on the 11th the anniversary of the Syrian Revolution, its rejection of normalizing relations, and that it will neither lift any sanctions imposed on Syria nor will change its position on the reconstruction of Syria, unless irreversible progress is made towards a political solution.
Washington intends to lift the sanctions applied under the Caesar Act on northeast and northwest Syria, with the exception of areas controlled by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, formerly al-Nusra Front).
The impact of the American Act will continue to target areas under Assad’s control, as the law prohibits foreign entities from dealing with Assad or participating in construction and reconstruction activities in this part of the Syrian territory.
As for the SDF-held areas and the Turkish-backed opposition factions-held areas, these areas will be able to benefit from commercial transactions with foreign entities and countries.
Investing countries are looking forward to this step. As one of the most privileged countries in the field of investment, the UAE may be preparing for this without affecting its recently growing relations with Damascus, and this is another goal of the Syrian-Emirati meeting.
This article was edited by The Syrian Observer. The Syrian Observer has not verified the content of this story. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.