Following UAE's normalisation with Israel, the gulf state - in collusion with Egypt - are openly supporting the oppressive Syrian regime, banding against Turkey in northern Syria.

A picture of Syrian regime leader Bashar al-Assad is seen on a door of a butcher shop, during a lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Damascus, Syria April 22, 2020
A picture of Syrian regime leader Bashar al-Assad is seen on a door of a butcher shop, during a lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Damascus, Syria April 22, 2020 (Reuters)

On September 9, Arab league countries, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Jordan came together under the leadership of Egypt to create a "solidarity" between them, confronting Turkey in the Middle East, particularly in northern Syria. Damascus was suspended from the alliance in 2011 following the Syrian regime’s violent crackdown on countrywide protests. It had also agreed to put pressure on the regime leader Bashar al Assad with sanctions

Over a period of nine years, the league has softened towards the Syrian regime as it recently discussed activating its membership in the alliance with Assad remaining in power. 

The meeting came after the Syrian regime’s first public contact with the UAE in eight years in March, as well as its diplomatic and military delegation’s latest visit to the Egyptian Foreign Ministry on September 17. 

A closer partnership between the Syria-UAE-Egypt trio

To regional observers, the joint UAE-Egypt effort to galvanise support for Damascus, did not come as a surprise. Despite not having engaged in any direct discussions until very recently, the UAE has been showing signs of shifting its policy against the Syrian regime, especially after the Russian involvement in the war in 2015 in support of Bashar al Assad. 

Abu Dhabi reopened its embassy in Damascus in December 2018 and in 2020. An exclusive Middle East Eye report said that Crown Prince MBZ offered $3bn to the Assad regime in order to break the ceasefire between Turkey and Russia on Idlib, the last remaining opposition stronghold in Syria. The UAE has also been training the Syrian regime's intelligence officers and engineers since January, Orient XXI reported on June 23. 

The UAE is eyeing up the prospect of profiting from the post-war reconstruction in Syria, a war-torn country with a bare minimum business elite.  Most wealthy Syrians fled the country during the war, leaving a huge business vacuum. Countries like Russia and the UAE are now trying to fill this for windfall gains. The race for acquiring major tenders for Syria's reconstruction has been worrisome for the US — the UAE's key ally.

On June 18, the US envoy to Syria, James Jeffrey, warned the UAE of being mindful of the Caesar Act, a legislation that sanctioned the Syrian regime after revealing photographic evidence of the regime's war crimes against civilians.

“The UAE knows that we are absolutely opposed to countries taking these diplomatic steps,” Jeffrey said on June 17 during a special briefing.

“In terms of economic activities that either somebody in the UAE or somebody in another country does that meets the criteria of these sanctions or legislation, they are a potential sanctions target,” he said.

Keep Turkey Busy and Distract

For the UAE and Egypt, stakes are higher. Cooperation with Damascus benefits them on another front: Libya.

While backing the moderate opposition in Syria, Turkey is also a main ally to Libya's UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), along with Qatar. 

Turkey’s relations with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt were already strained in 2017, when Ankara backed Qatar against their sanctions.

For the UAE, keeping Turkey busy in an intensive war in Northern Syria by maintaining good relations with the Syrian regime, is a wishful tactic to distract Turkey from its aid to the GNA. Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, whose aim is to capture Tripoli, is largely dependent on the UAE, Egypt, as well as Russia.

The trio, made up of the Syrian regime, the UAE and Egypt, have set up a committee to coordinate in Libya, and Damascus has been sending fighters to join the UAE-backed Haftar ranks.

Reports suggest that of late, Turkey has been silently courting Egypt, in light of the common interests the two nations hold in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as Libya. All the while, Cairo instead has chosen to rally Arab states against Turkey.

The silence over the UAE-Israel peace deal 

In line with the UAE’s policy in Syria, Egypt sent 150 soldiers to fight among the Assad regime’s ranks in July. The soldiers were accompanied by the Revolutionary Guards of Iran, Israel’s arch-enemy in Syria, and beyond.

While Egypt is an ally to Israel, its cooperation with the Iranian guards in support of Damascus signalled a change in dynamics in Syria. For the Arab league states that are led by Egypt, the increasing act of cosying up to Damascus, as well as partnering with the Assad regime, is a way to battle Turkey’s growing influence in the region. Cairo and its Arab allies believe that Ankara's foreign policy agenda is driven by what they call a neo-Ottoman ambition, an accusation even Greece has recently used against Turkey. Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, rejected it, saying that while he's "proud" of his Ottoman ancestors, the country had "no intention" to establish a state like that.

Earlier this year, Egypt issued a fatwa banning Turkish TV soap operas, following in the UAE and Saudi's footsteps by doing this. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia stepped up its efforts to cut Ankara’s influence in the region by officially boycotting Turkish imports from October 1.