The UAE-led Gulf states are essential to Bashar al Assad's plan to re-integrate himself into polite company.
The signing of the US-brokered Abraham Accords on August 13 made the United Arab Emirates (UAE) the third Arab state to establish formalised diplomatic relations with Israel. The agreement normalises Abu Dhabi’s relationship with Tel Aviv in exchange for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government suspending — albeit not cancelling — plans to annex 30 to 40 percent of the West Bank.
Throughout the Middle East, there have been diverse responses to this “peace deal”. Support has come from Bahrain, Egypt, and Oman. Jordan’s response was cautiously worded and muted. Kuwait’s government has been silent, yet 37 members of the National Assembly called on Kuwait’s leadership to condemn the Abraham Accords.
Opposition has come from the governments of Iran and Turkey. Unsurprisingly, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) also had harsh words for the UAE-Israel deal. Interestingly, Syria, the one Arab state which remains a truly confrontational actor vis-a-vis Israel, has been silent.
It is notable that Turkey, despite having formal relations with Israel, slammed the Abraham Accords while Syria, which has never had official relations with Tel Aviv, has refrained from doing so. Ultimately, the difference between Ankara and Damascus’s responses to the UAE-Israel deal informs us much more about Turkey and Syria's views on the Emirates, than on the Jewish state.
That officials in Damascus did not condemn Abu Dhabi for formalising its relationship with Israel reflects Syria’s interest in building on its rapprochement with the UAE, which occurred in December 2018. The UAE’s interests that motivated it to re-open its diplomatic mission in Damascus largely pertain to Abu Dhabi’s interests in profiting from the reconstruction process in Syria and bringing Damascus into a bloc of Arab capitals that stand against Turkey’s so-called “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy agenda.
That Syria recognises the Khalifa Haftar-allied House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk as Libya’s legitimate government (as opposed to the Turkish-backed and UN-recognised government in Tripoli) underscores how Damascus and Abu Dhabi are to a significant extent aligned against Ankara and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Assad’s warm relations with Egypt’s regime and the Syrian regime's vitriol for Qatar also point to the alignment between Damascus and Abu Dhabi.
The UAE’s leadership would also like to take steps that distance Damascus from Tehran, even if that is difficult to imagine. To do so, Abu Dhabi seeks to use its influence to bring Syria closer to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states orbits of influence, similar to how President Hafez al Assad positioned Damascus between Arab Gulf monarchies and the Islamic Republic during the previous century’s final two decades.
As Syria seeks to reintegrate itself into the Arab world’s diplomatic fold, the UAE’s re-embrace of Assad’s legitimacy is welcome from Damascus’s perspective. That Bahrain followed Abu Dhabi’s lead and re-normalised its own diplomatic relationship with Damascus at the same time attests to how certain actors in the region follow Abu Dhabi’s actions.
Moreover, even though the US-imposed Caesar Act creates extremely difficult challenges for Syria’s regime as it seeks to lure investment and financial aid from deep-pocketed Arab states, officials in Damascus value the UAE as a partner that can help Syria rebuild and redevelop following nearly a decade of a gruesome civil war.
Additionally, as Syria copes with Covid-19, the Assad regime is grateful for humanitarian help from foreign powers such as the UAE.
For Syria, improved relations with Gulf states fit into its vision for achieving its goals domestically, regionally, and globally. Even if at a rate that is slower than what Syria’s regime would hope for, there is a notable improvement in Damascus-GCC relations. Oman never cut off diplomatic relations and, as previously mentioned, both Bahrain and the Emirates reconciled with Syria almost two years ago. A Kuwaiti-Syrian rapprochement could possibly happen.
When it comes to Saudi Arabia, more time might need to pass before Riyadh reaccepts the Assad regime as legitimate. Given Saudi Arabia’s growing threat perception of Turkey, the ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ mindset could pave the way for the oil-rich kingdom and Assad to make up sooner than some observers may expect. If that happens, such a development would undoubtedly serve as a major watershed in Syria’s eventual return to the Arab League.
With the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed wielding significant influence over his Saudi counterpart Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), Assad likely sees the UAE having potential to facilitate a Damascus-Riyadh rapprochement.
All the above factors help explain why Syria values its ties with the UAE and has not publicly condemned Abu Dhabi for formalising relations with Israel. This is significant considering how Damascus has spent decades attempting to pressure its fellow Arab capitals into not following Cairo and Amman’s lead in terms of normalising relations with Tel Aviv.
At the same time, the Baathist regime’s anti-Zionist ideology and official narratives, which rest on Syria being a proud country that stands by pan-Arab causes such as the Palestinian struggle, make it easy to understand why Syria did not join Bahrain, Egypt, and Oman in terms of outright welcoming the Abraham Accords.
Although loathed by many Arabs for what it did to crush the opposition, the Syrian regime still receives support from various corners of the Arab world, including in Palestine, where Assad is viewed as a champion of anti-imperialist and Arab nationalist struggles.
For Damascus to openly embrace the UAE’s decision to formalise relations with the ‘Zionist entity’ would cost the Syrian regime credibility among certain groups and individuals within the region, including those in Palestine who are livid at MBZ for agreeing to the Abraham Accords.
Looking ahead, the Syrian regime will likely provide no more than a restrained response to the UAE-Israel deal, if Damascus gives any response at all. Ultimately, it is safe to conclude that Syrian regime officials will be more pleased with Abu Dhabi’s diplomatic mission in Damascus than they will be upset with the UAE’s embassy in Tel Aviv.
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