On March 18, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad landed in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for a whistle-stop tour involving meetings with numerous high-ranking Emirati government officials (Arab News, March 18). Among others, al-Assad met with UAE Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum before being received by de-facto UAE leader and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince, now President, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan. The day-long trip was al-Assad’s first visit to an Arab country since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011. The Syrian president’s only other foreign trips were to long-standing allies Russia and Iran, which have provided the necessary military support to keep al-Assad in power.
The trip was largely symbolic and centered on demonstrating that UAE leaders are committed to strengthening cooperation with Damascus. According to statements from the press, bin Zayed stressed that “Syria is a fundamental pillar of Arab security” (The Arab Weekly, March 19). The visit was criticized by the U.S., with a State Department official noting that Washington was “disappointed and troubled” by the trip and the apparent attempts by the UAE to normalize relations with Syria (Alaraby, March 19).
A Gradual Shift
During the onset of the Syrian civil war, the UAE, alongside the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, cut ties with Damascus as a result of its violent crackdown on protesters. In 2012, the UAE closed its embassy in Damascus and cut all diplomatic ties (Middle East Online, December 27, 2018). In the ensuing years, the UAE position shifted from supporting rebel groups trying to depose al-Assad to backing the beleaguered Syrian president.
Foreign involvement and the rise of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) posed a problem for the UAE because it meant there was a greater potential for Islamist groups to seize power and expand political Islam, which is antithetical to the UAE’s regional agenda. When increased Russian military support in 2015 swung the conflict in al-Assad’s favour, the UAE consolidated its position by committing to regional stability, which no longer included the demand for al-Assad’s removal. With al-Assad clearly set to be central to Damascus’s future and the geopolitical situation in Syria increasingly offering opportunities for friendly external parties, the UAE made conciliatory moves (Alaraby November 13, 2018).
The UAE began taking small steps toward reconciliation with al-Assad in 2018 when they reopened their embassy in Damascus that year. Since then, other peace-making tactics have included offering COVID-19 support to Syria, conducting bilateral negotiations with high-ranking Syrian officials regarding trade, commerce and humanitarian support, and opening backchannel talks with other amenable regional partners, such as Egypt and Jordan, regarding Syria’s potential readmission to the Arab League (Alaraby, March 10). The visit of Assad to the UAE, however, is the most brazenly public show of normalization between the two states, and the timing of the trip is not accidental.
Drifting Western Focus
Attempts to reintegrate Syria into the Arab world are part of the UAE’s wider strategy of diversifying global relationships. The U.S and UAE remain close global partners, particularly in the areas of bilateral counter-terrorism and security. Despite the admonishment from the State Department, the Biden administration has been reticent to criticize the UAE’s public overtures to Damascus. Under the auspices of the 2019 Caesar Act, which aims to isolate Assad through sanctions, the UAE is vulnerable to sanctions for re-engaging Assad, but there has been no suggestion that the U.S is contemplating such a move (Alaraby, March 9, 2021).
U.S. focus on the Middle East had already begun to drift since President Biden took office in January 2021, and the conflict in Ukraine has ensured its focus remains away from Syria. The conflict has, however, provided the UAE with unexpected geopolitical leverage due to global furor over Western purchases of Russian oil, which offers the UAE additional commercial interests. The West is unlikely to start sanctioning a state like the UAE which can provide alternate energy markets from Russia. A refusal by the UAE to support the Western position in Ukraine has, therefore, passed largely unnoticed. The UAE has even continued its policy of attempting to secure closer relationships with Russia as well as China through adopting a policy of increased neutrality in global conflicts (Middle East Eye, February 27). Maintaining working relations with multiple major powers and hedging bets that the U.S. will remain distracted appears to be working for the UAE.
Curbing Regional Adversaries
Greater influence in Syria will allow the UAE to curb the inclinations of regional adversaries, such as Iran and Turkey. Despite relations thawing in the past 12-18 months, Turkey and the UAE had previously been at odds with one another, largely due to the former’s support of Qatar and ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Syrian civil war was the theatre where these tensions manifested. The UAE was also critical of Turkey’s conflation of Kurdish nationalism with terrorism and has repeatedly attempted to suppress Turkish influence in Syria (al-Monitor, February 25, 2019).
Damascus was able to partner with the UAE’s security establishment to force the withdrawal of hundreds of Turkish troops from Syria, who were set to be redeployed in Iraq (Middle East Eye, March 24). If Turkish interests and its presence in northern Syria are diminished, economic assistance to Syria will likely allow the UAE to establish significant influence in the region, while simultaneously offsetting Turkish regional ambitions. Relations with Turkey remain complex, but closer ties with Damascus have certainly allowed the UAE to flex its muscle in Syria, with demonstrable success. In sum, an emboldened al-Assad regime is detrimental to Turkey’s national security interests.
UAE Strategy Vis-a-Vis Iran
Increased influence in Syria is beneficial to Abu Dhabi’s wider strategy of re-engaging Tehran while also trying to limit Iran’s growing regional influence (Terrorism Monitor, March 11). Both Russia and Iran have had military, economic, and societal influence in Syria in recent years and the UAE’s push for normalization with Syria is likely tied to future plans rather than trying to pressure al-Assad into immediately decoupling from Tehran. Iran is a major player in the Syrian melting pot, providing billions of dollars of assistance and material support, but the UAE is able to offer advantages that Tehran cannot. Al-Assad visited Tehran on May 8, demonstrating that the Syrian president remains within the Iranian sphere of influence and that Damascus is looking to strengthen ties with Tehran owing to the instability associated with the Russian invasion of Ukraine (PressTV, May 8).
The UAE is the flag bearer for potential Syrian re-engagement with other GCC states and a gradual re-introduction of Damascus into the Arab diplomatic fold. The increased economic and political opportunities this would bring al-Assad compared to the comparatively isolated Iran would be myriad. Key international players, including Saudi Arabia, also want to weaken Syrian dependence on Iran, and although Riyadh has yet to make any overtures to Damascus, this common goal could persuade the Saudis to consider allowing Syria back into the Arab League. If the Arab states can offer Syria an avenue back into the international fold, its reliance on Tehran could wane.
The Houthi Question
Despite UAE and Iranian desires to increase diplomatic relations, the issue is complicated by the ongoing activity of the Houthis, the Iranian-backed militia movement in Yemen. On January 17, Houthi militants conducted a drone attack targeting Abu Dhabi. This triggered a fuel tank explosion which killed three people and caused structural damage to an under-construction section of Abu Dhabi International Airport (Daily Sabah, January 17). The attacks were reportedly in retaliation for a UAE-backed offensive by the Giants Brigade, which forced the Houthis out of key strategic positions in Shabawh Governorate.
The Houthi attacks were the first instance of the UAE experiencing domestic ‘blowback’ from the Yemen crisis, and Abu Dhabi has urged the Biden administration to designate the Houthis as a terrorist organisation (Alarabiya, 1 February 2022). The attacks further caused concern in Abu Dhabi that its reputation as a safe harbour in the Middle East could also be impacted. The UAE had long been reluctant to get embroiled in the Saudi–Yemeni conflict, and it is unlikely that the attacks were ordered by Tehran. Although weaponry and training is provided by Iran, the Houthi rebels operate with a degree of independence. Damascus, which is sympathetic to the Houthis and remained silent when other international partners condemned the attacks on Abu Dhabi, may come to see that their relationship with the Houthis is an impediment to closer ties with the UAE (NPASyria, October 18, 2021).
Limitations to Syrian Stability
Resurrecting relations with the UAE is a major boon for al-Assad, but in reality, it is not going to contribute to Syrian stability in the medium term. The UAE has no troops on the ground in Syria, and promises of humanitarian aid have not solved the myriad of social, economic, and medical issues plaguing the country. While the civil war in Syria has been raging, no countries without a military presence have been able to exert significant influence. The UAE is pursuing a long-term strategy of forcing its way into the already clustered Syrian theatre of influence, and is hoping significant economic assistance is enough to get a seat at al-Assad’s table.
The promise of investment in a solar-powered energy plant close to Damascus is an example of the UAE strategy of investments aimed at extending UAE political influence (al-Arabiya, November 11, 2021). Normalization efforts have not resulted in any discernible improvement in the quality of life for Syrian citizens, while the country remains rife with human rights abuses, extreme corruption and militias wielding outsized influence. The normalization talks have largely been symbolic, and UAE investment will have little to no impact on the current insurgencies or Islamic State remnants, which are operating in Syria, given the piecemeal promises of material support or reconstruction thus far.
The UAE’s overtures to Damascus are driven by a complex network of motivations, but at the heart they are all focused on the UAE’s desire to expand outreach across the region and portray itself as the region’s bastion of stability. These goals are clearly being viewed through a long lens, with al-Assad being hardly likely to decouple from an Iran that has played an essential part in keeping him in power. However, the UAE is hoping it can lure al-Assad into its orbit by offering investment and a potential route back into the Arab League.
It is also unclear for just how long the West will accept the UAE’s increasingly brazen normalization efforts with Assad. Nevertheless, the West’s prioritization of the Ukrainian conflict means the U.S. could demand the UAE back down from its favorable posture toward Russia and its allies in Syria at any time. The UAE is playing a long and potentially perilous game, but it has clearly decided the long-term gains outweigh the short-term geopolitical risks.