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Alexey Khlebnikov

Middle East expert and Russian foreign policy analyst, MSc Global Public Policy, Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota. PhD candidate, RIAC expert.

Igor Matveev

Ph.D. in History, Full State Counsellor of the Russian Federation, 3rd class; Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences; Lecturer at MGIMO University under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation; expert on Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean, RIAC Expert

Reconciliating Damascus with the Arab family remains among the key most challenging issues on the regional agenda. It is acquiring even greater importance due to the ongoing reapproachment efforts between Damascus and the Arab Gulf states pioneered by the UAE. Since 2018, Bahrain and the UAE have restored diplomatic relations with the Syrian Arab Republic despite years of animosity and criticism coming from the West. A series of high-level visits took place over the last years, and a number of economic agreements have been signed between Damascus and its regional peers which proves evolution of their policies towards Syria.

The normalization of Assad’s Syria with the Arab family is still a rather limited and slow process, where GCC states are all differently involved. Although the rapprochement has already started and seems irreversible, it remains highly vulnerable to a number of limiting factors, e.g. harsh outer environment, multiple regional competitions, and the intra-Arab contradictions.

First, the idea of détente with Damascus meets increasingly hostile attitude in the West. The United States is opposed to any normalization with the Syrian government, especially due to the fact that it coincides with Moscow’s current efforts to mediate Türkiye-Syria rapprochement. On January 3, Ned Price, the U.S. State Department’s spokesperson explicitly commented on Dec. 28 trilateral talks in Moscow saying: “We’ve made very clear to all of our allies and partners that now is not the time to normalize relations, now is not the time to upgrade relations [with Syria].” The EU, for its part, seems to have no intention to support a normalization with Damascus as well. In addition, Western sanctions on Syria, especially the U.S. Caesar Act and CAATSA, put serious caps on many countries willing to restore relations with Syria. Therefore, the U.S. policy towards Syria and its Arab allies will play an important role in the success or failure of the Syrian détente.

Second, the official Damascus has been facing sanctions adopted by the Arab League since November 2011, including suspension of Syria’s membership in this organization. Although several countries, e.g. Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Oman, the UAE and Tunisia, are currently proposing to re-evaluate Syria’s suspension in the Arab League, there is still no unity on this matter. It is yet another indication of existing differences, if not rivalry, among the Arab states. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are still hesitant to follow the UAE launching their détente with Damascus.

To cut a long story short, there is a clear willingness for reconciliation expressed by Moscow, Abu Dhabi, and Damascus, as well as established dialogues between their respective leaders. Those ongoing negotiation tracks could contribute to overcoming the bureaucratic inertia and promoting reconciliation between Syria and the UAE. While the UAE’s leadership currently appears hesitant to establish trilateral formats of cooperation with Russia and Syria, this may change in the future in light of the influence exerted by Iran and Turkey.

Reconciliating Damascus with the Arab family remains among the key most challenging issues on the regional agenda. It is acquiring even greater importance due to the ongoing reapproachment efforts between Damascus and the Arab Gulf states pioneered by the UAE. Since 2018, Bahrain and the UAE have restored diplomatic relations with the Syrian Arab Republic despite years of animosity and criticism coming from the West. A series of high-level visits took place over the last years, and a number of economic agreements have been signed between Damascus and its regional peers which proves evolution of their policies towards Syria.

Besides, given the ongoing shift in the global international order, the current crisis in regional security and the recent steps towards rapprochement between Damascus and Ankara facilitated by Russia, it is crucial to comprehend the potential and limitations of Syria’s reintegration into the Arab community.

On Jan. 4-5, the UAE’s Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan visited Damascus where he met with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This visit has garnered significant international attention, eliciting mixed reactions. Some experts noted the UAE’s “long game on Syria”, possibly as a counter to its regional rival Iran, while others have already speculated about al-Assad’s attempts to find an alternative to the sanctioned Russia.

Why the UAE?

Currently, the United Arab Emirates is the only Arab Gulf nation to have been visited by President Assad during the Syrian conflict (in March 2022), with both countries witnessing the largest number of reciprocal visits on a high political level. The UAE has proven to be Syria’s closest partner among the rest of the Arab Gulf states and is seen as having the potential to make a positive impact on the resolution of the Syrian conflict and the country’s reconstruction. A logical question arises: why Syria has become so important to the UAE, and what drives Abu Dhabi’s policy to normalize ties with Damascus? There are several factors that have led the UAE to take this path.

UAE’s rationale

The first factor is political. Our discussions with Emirati officials and experts support the view that the UAE’s leadership regards Syria as a valuable network-building asset. Abu Dhabi is attempting to use relations with Damascus as a bargaining chip to enhance its own status as a regional middle power. Alongside with that, the UAE’s renewed relationship with Damascus enables the Emiratis to more effectively deter or closely monitor the mounting influence of Turkey and Iran in Syria.

The second factor is ideological. The UAE’s leadership has found an ideological ally in President Bashar al-Assad, who, similar to UAE's President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, has been on a counterrevolutionary crusade against Islamism, while Saudi Arabia and Qatar have supported Islamic radicals in Syria. The UAE was concerned about the empowerment of Islamist movements in Syria and its potentially negative impact on the Levant and the Gulf subregion, including the UAE itself. This is why Abu Dhabi chose to initiate the reconciliation process with Damascus in a bid to curb Islamist influence in Syria.

The third factor is military. The UAE sees Assad’s Syria as a valuable stronghold against Turkish and Iranian expansionism in the Middle East and North Africa region. Furthermore, intelligence cooperation between Damascus and Abu Dhabi aids in the joint fight against ISIS.

Forth factor is economical. The UAE had supported the Syrian opposition for years until it recognized the unrealistic nature of a “regime change” policy for Syria. Consequently, the country sought to hedge the risks, minimizing its losses in Syria by a reconciliation with Damascus. After reopening of the Emirati embassy in Damascus Abu Dhabi has been positioning itself as the main “gateway” for entering Syria’s reconstruction process. Since 2020, the Syrian expert community has been using the term “al-infitah al-khaliji” (“opening [of Syria] by the Gulf countries”). However, according to local experts, after the adoption of the U.S. Caesar Act in June 2020, the Emirati authorities started recommending (rather than forcing) compliance with the anti-Syria sanctions to all national companies. Remaining Syria’s pivotal trade partner, the UAE’s leadership quickly switched its main efforts from an economic “infitah” to the Covid diplomacy and humanitarian assistance. Such shift only proved the vulnerable character of the Gulf-Syria détente.

In sum, since Bahrain and the UAE reopened embassies in Damascus in December 2018, the Gulf states have been making overtures to official Damascus. Those include a variety of steps, ranging from a warm welcome to President Bashar al-Assad (as during his visit to the UAE in March 2022) and regular visits by top officials to confidential meetings of security experts, “business-to-business” (B2B) missions, or even emphatically cordial diplomatic receptions in Syria. Among the latter was celebration of the UAE’s Union Day organized by the Emirati Embassy on December 2 in Damascus and attended by several members of the Syrian government, including the Minister of Defense.

Damascus rationale

The Syrian government’s willingness to reconcile with the UAE, despite years of hostility and the UAE’s support of the Syrian opposition, can be attributed to several key factors.

For official Damascus, a successful détente with the UAE is viewed as a means to overcome Syria’s isolation in the Arab world, which could eventually help restore its membership in the Arab League and be reintegrated into the Arab family. The UAE also serves as an intermediary for Damascus’s communication with other GCC states (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Qatar) and the West. It is also worth noting that the Syrian government views the UAE as a potential counterbalance to excessive Iranian influence in Syria.

Cooperation with the Emirates is also beneficial for economic reasons, such as circumventing Western sanctions on Damascus and giving Syrian entrepreneurs an opportunity to exploit Dubai’s financial center as a “hub” to access global markets and accumulate personal wealth, as they did before the Syrian conflict. Quite expectedly, such attempts have soon met resistance from the U.S. Treasury, targeting ventures like the UAE-based ASM International General Trading LLC, which is affiliated with Samer al-Foz and other businessmen allegedly close to the Syrian authorities. The Caesar Act, having entered into force in June 2020, was also implemented to limit third-party assistance to Damascus in coping with the sanctions. However, in October 2021, the UAE and Syria have agreed to enhance economic cooperation. Also, in November 2022, Muhammed Gazwan al-Masri, a former Chairman of the Syrian-Emirati Business Council, was elected to a prominent position of the Chairman of the Board in Damascus Chamber of Industry. Local experts view this move to be coordinated with the authorities and aimed at expanding B2B dialogue with the UAE.

Prospects of Syria’s reconciliation with the UAE

It’s been almost five years since the détente between Damascus and its Arab partners started in 2018. The UAE and Bahrain now have functioning embassies in Damascus (Oman never closed its embassy in Syria), and regular visits and economic activities are ongoing.

After over a decade of war and instability in Syria and with an apparent failure of “regime change” policies, most regional actors started to comprehend the need to normalize relations with Damascus. There are several reasons that have led to this outcome.

Ongoing regional and global transformation

The ongoing transformation of the international system has led to the Arab nations adapting and implementing multi-vector policies that align with their national interests. The decreasing attention of the United States to the region and the over-reliance on Washington in terms of technology, economy, and military, has resulted in regional states diversifying their relationships, which has generated a more balanced policy.

Restoring relations with Damascus helps regional actors minimize their financial losses when they used to support Syrian opposition and increase their role in mediation. Moreover, the Gulf states, and the UAE in particular, can become a new venue for conflict-resolution: conducting balanced policies and being opened to fostering ties with all regional actors increases their political capital. Seeking a deeper cooperation with Syria will help the UAE to contribute to a faster resolution of the conflict and secure its role in the new regional security architecture. This is why Abu Dhabi will most likely continue its rapprochement with Damascus.

Arab pragmatism

In recent years, we have seen Arab states prioritize pragmatism over ideological factors and external pressure from the West (in regards to issues such as Syria and Ukraine). This shift in approach began to take shape in the mid-2010s, as the Arab Gulf states realized the need to be less dependent on the West and to pursue more independent policies. This is evident in the decision of the UAE and Bahrain to reopen embassies in Damascus in 2018, their ongoing efforts to foster economic cooperation with Syria, and the GCC states’ decision in 2022 not to join anti-Russian sanctions. So far, such pragmatism gives hope that the UAE will not backtrack on its recent decisions.

Rising role of regional powers

Increasing autonomy of the Gulf states gives more room for positive policy change and more space to secure their own role in the MENA region. Besides, Sunni leaderships of the GCC states—namely, Saudi Arabia and the UAE—are attempting to confront what they call the “aggressive interventionism” of the Shia Iran in the Levant and Iraq. Another competitor is Türkiye with its “Neo-Ottoman” expansionism, which is reflected in the Emirati-Turkish confrontation in Libya. Although there have been some indications of Abu Dhabi–Ankara reconciliation galvanized by the February 14, 2022 visit of Turkish president to Abu Dhabi, the UAE still views Türkiye as rather expansionist. Those competitions push the GCC states to seek for loopholes to foster relations with Damascus aimed at preventing a further drift of Assad’s Syria towards Tehran or at deterring any substantial growth of Turkish influence in the Levant, as in the case of the Syria-Türkiye détente. Syria has always been key to peace and security in the region, and the UAE with its Gulf peers is unwilling to lose Syria completely to non-Arab regional powers.

Limiting factors for Syria’s détente

However, despite the above-mentioned factors, the normalization of Assad’s Syria with the Arab family is still a rather limited and slow process, where GCC states are all differently involved (see Table 1). Although the rapprochement has already started and seems irreversible, it remains highly vulnerable to a number of limiting factors, e.g. harsh outer environment, multiple regional competitions, and the intra-Arab contradictions.

First, the idea of détente with Damascus meets increasingly hostile attitude in the West. The United States is opposed to any normalization with the Syrian government, especially due to the fact that it coincides with Moscow’s current efforts to mediate Türkiye-Syria rapprochement. On January 3, Ned Price, the U.S. State Department’s spokesperson explicitly commented on Dec. 28 trilateral talks in Moscow saying: “We’ve made very clear to all of our allies and partners that now is not the time to normalize relations, now is not the time to upgrade relations [with Syria].” The EU, for its part, seems to have no intention to support a normalization with Damascus as well. In addition, Western sanctions on Syria, especially the U.S. Caesar Act and CAATSA, put serious caps on many countries willing to restore relations with Syria. Therefore, the U.S. policy towards Syria and its Arab allies will play an important role in the success or failure of the Syrian détente.

Second, the official Damascus has been facing sanctions adopted by the Arab League since November 2011, including suspension of Syria’s membership in this organization. Although several countries, e.g. Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Oman, the UAE and Tunisia, are currently proposing to re-evaluate Syria’s suspension in the Arab League, there is still no unity on this matter. It is yet another indication of existing differences, if not rivalry, among the Arab states. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are still hesitant to follow the UAE launching their détente with Damascus.

Third, on the sub-regional level, the multi-speed character of the normalization process can be explained by the present division of the GCC into two groups, such as the advocates (the UAE, Oman, and Bahrain) and the opponents (Qatar and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia) with Kuwait maneuvering between them. This division correlates with the existing intra-Gulf competition for influence, namely, between Saudi Arabia–Qatar and Saudi Arabia–the UAE.

This table also shows the UAE’s leadership in the process of détente with Syria.

Name of the country/name of the track High-level political contacts Diplomatic relations Coordination on security issues Trade and investments
Bahrain Rare contacts on the sidelines of international forums; Sept 2018: Foreign Ministers (FMs) met at the UN General Assembly in New York Dec 2018: Bahraini embassy to Syria reopened; Jun 2022: Bahraini ambassador officially resumed office No data available in public domain Financing banking and insurance projects in Syria (2020: 4th place among the GCC states and 6th among the Arab states); Jan-Sept 2022: investments reached $72,7 mln
Kuwait Zero contacts Jan 2015: Syrian embassy to Kuwait reopened; Kuwaiti embassy to Syria is still closed No data available in public domain

Islamic Banking and insurance projects in Syria (2020: 3rd investor in the GCC/5th among Arabs)

Investing in Damascus trade centers, real estate and housing, the Hassiya Industrial city in Central Syria

Oman

Regular exchange of FM visits

Aug 2015, Mar 2018, Mar 2021: Syrian FM visited Muscat

Oct 2015, Jul 2019, Jan, Nov 2022: Omani FM visited Damascus

Nov 2021: Bouthaina Shaaban, advisor to the Syrian President, visited Muscat

Oman kept the embassy in Syria throughout the conflict; Oct 2020: Omani ambassador resumed the duty

Limited data available in public domain; Nov 2022: dialogue between intelligence officers on the fate of US citizens missing in Syria

Active B2B dialogue and regular exchanges of business missions; Omani participation at Damascus int. fairs and other business forums

July 2022: The Syrian-Omani Business Council established in Damascus; projects discussed in the food and pharmaceutical sectors

Qatar Zero contacts Zero contacts, embassies closed No data in public domain B2B relations; Islamic banking in Syria (2020: 1st in the GCC/2nd among Arab states)
Saudi Arabia Rare contacts; May 2021: Syrian Minister of Tourism visited Riyadh for the 47th meeting of the World Tourism Organization Committee for the Middle East Sporadic contacts, embassies closed Limited data in public domain; May 2021: General Khaled al-Humaidan, Saudi Intelligence Chief visited Damascus Implementing banking and insurance projects in Syria (2020: 2nd investor in the GCC/4th among the Arab states)
United Arab Emirates

Mar 2022: President of Syria Bashar al-Assad visited UAE

Nov 2021, Jan 2023: UAE’s FM visited Damascus

Dec 2018: UAE embassy to Syria reopened on the level of chargé d’affaires Limited data; UAE is likely to provide training for Syrian intelligence officers and to preserve dialogue on Idlib and Türkiye’s role in Northern Syria

2021: Emirati exports reached $461 mln (1st Arab trade partner for Syria/3rd globally)

Islamic banking and insurance projects in Syria (2020: 5th in the GCC/7th among the Arab states)

Table 1. Designed by Matveev I.A. based on open sources and data received from a Syrian consulting company

As a result, Syria’s rapprochement with the Arab community can be seen as inevitable, yet gradual and nuanced. While several regional states, such as Jordan, the UAE, Oman, Bahrain, and Egypt, are already on the path towards reconciliation with Damascus, it is a matter of time and external factors when Syria will be fully reintegrated back into the region.

In conclusion

Ivan Bocharov:
Bargaining Items

When discussing intra-Arab reconciliation with Syria, it is important to acknowledge Russia’s role. Moscow has been actively encouraging regional powers to reconcile with Damascus for years, and its continued presence and influence in Syria will remain a crucial factor for any country seeking to rebuild its relations with Damascus.

In this context, we need to think about the dividends Russia and the UAE can accumulate from their cooperation in Syria. Which mutually beneficial patterns will be needed to achieve the best results?

To cut a long story short, there is a clear willingness for reconciliation expressed by Moscow, Abu Dhabi, and Damascus, as well as established dialogues between their respective leaders. Those ongoing negotiation tracks could contribute to overcoming the bureaucratic inertia and promoting reconciliation between Syria and the UAE. While the UAE’s leadership currently appears hesitant to establish trilateral formats of cooperation with Russia and Syria, this may change in the future in light of the influence exerted by Iran and Turkey.

For instance, the Emiratis may benefit from the Russian “security matrix”, which provides Russian security guarantees for implementation of Emirati investment projects on the Syrian soil. Another promising track could imply more B2B joint dialogues under the auspices of national trade and industrial associations from Russia, Syria, and the UAE, with ad-hoc coordination with Iranian business partners. One of pilot projects serving interests of all participating partners could be constituted by building a railroad from the Syrian coast to the Syrian-Iraqi border via the Syrian desert (Badia).

Despite the numerous objective factors that make reconciliation with Damascus beneficial not only for Syria and the Syrian people but also for the broader region, one can still find many roadblocks on the way. Key developments to pay attention to in this regard are the steps that the UAE and other Gulf states will take in their cooperation with Damascus, and whether Türkiye and Syria will see a new beginning in their relations. If these developments prove successful and there is little opposition from the West, Syria and the region will have the opportunity for a more stable and predictable regional arrangement.


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