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Assad and the UAE advance their agendas after the earthquake

Assad and the UAE advance their agendas after the earthquake
7 min read
22 February, 2023
Analysis: The Assad regime has used the deadly earthquake to advance its own agenda, with the UAE's help.

Despite calls not to politicise the response to the devastating earthquake which killed over 47,000 people in Syria and Turkey, all parties have been playing politics in the disaster's wake.

In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad has used the earthquake to seek support to lift Western sanctions and to end his international isolation after 11 years of war.

Regional actors such as the UAE have also taken the opportunity to boldly promote the regime’s re-entry into the international fold, where such efforts usually would be condemned by Western powers such as the United States.

The UN-led aid system to northwest Syria has been called into question after the UN’s self-professed “failure” to assist affected areas in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. Humanitarian actors and rights groups have called for a complete reimagining of how aid reaches the area.

Assad and the UAE: Profiting from disaster

There have been a lot of firsts for president Assad since the 6 February earthquake. For the first time since 2011, Syria has received the Jordanian Foreign Minister, a high-ranking Lebanese delegation and direct aid shipments from countries like Saudi Arabia.

This is all part of a “flurry of diplomatic contact” with the Syrian regime after the international community had made it an international pariah for war crimes committed against its own population since 2011, Natasha Hall, a senior researcher with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) told The New Arab.

Even Saudi Arabia, a country which had previously stridently refused any sort of normalisation with Syria, has made comments to suggest that it is open to dialogue with the Assad regime.

Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan said at the Munich Security Conference last week that “we have to acknowledge there is no path forward achieving the maximal goals that we all had to pursue that will have to involve dialogue with Damascus”.

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He added that in “the Arab world, there is a consensus growing that the status quo is not working,” referring to the region’s approach to Syria.

While international coordination for humanitarian aid is necessary, there is a fear that countries that had previously sought to bring Damascus out from the cold were using the earthquake as a pretext to advance ties permanently.

“The issue of this flurry of diplomatic activity is that it will stand past the earthquake and that’s the issue at hand. There are a lot of steps that are being taken that will not be able to be taken back,” Hall said.

The international response to the Assad regime’s crimes against its own population has largely been expressed through sanctions and diplomatic isolation. The stated aim of most countries, particularly in the West, is to pursue a political solution for the country’s civil war under UN Security Council resolution 2254.

The international community’s leverage to pressure the Assad regime to conform to UNSC 2254 comes largely from the pressure of sanctions and diplomatic isolation. However, with the increasing normalisation of the Assad regime on the international stage, that leverage is evaporating.

Men hang the national flag next to posters of President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian capital Damascus on 17 May 2021. [Getty]

The UAE has been the main gatekeeper for the Assad regime in the Middle East, leading the normalisation trend within the region since 2018 and pushing for the regime’s interests internationally.

There are several reasons for the UAE’s activism on the Syria file, including the hope that it will be able to profit from reconstruction contracts from the war-torn country in the future and reduce Iranian influence in Syria.

“The first initial thought is that this is to counter Iranian activity in Syria … Syria is [also] a launching pad into the Mediterranean, so in terms of infrastructure and logistics in the future for a small country like the UAE, Syria could be a lynchpin for that,” Hall said.

Growing frustration with the UN

The UN’s failure to provide any aid to first responders working to rescue people out from under rubble in northwest Syria has prompted international fury and calls for the UN-led aid system to be reformed.

The UN did not provide any aid to the northwest for the first three days following the earthquake and did not send rescue teams or equipment until it was far too late for most survivors.

The UN claimed that the roads leading to Gaziantep, the hub for UN aid in southern Turkey, were damaged – though journalists at the scene said otherwise.

The roughly 4.5 million people living in opposition-held northwest Syria are highly dependent on humanitarian aid, the majority of which comes through the UN. The UN, however, has said that it can only deliver aid to Syria with the permission of the national government (the Assad regime) or with the authorisation of the UNSC.

Due to Russian and Chinese vetoes on the UNSC, the UN is only authorised to deliver aid through one border crossing, Bab al-Hawa in Turkey, severely limiting its ability to provide aid to the northwest.

Damascus and Russia have argued that aid should go through Damascus, which would then deliver it “cross line” to opposition-held territory in the northwest and northeast. In the days immediately following the earthquake, the regime repeated its requests that aid be directed through it instead of opening new border crossings.

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“The Syrian government is showing its sunny face, urging the UN to deliver more aid across the frontline, but all involved remember very well that Syrian officials have spent years blocking cross-line shipments in order to starve out rebel enclaves,” Aron Lund, a Fellow at Century International, told TNA.

International frustration mounted that the UN was constrained while people were dying under rubble in northwest Syria, and there were calls for the UNSC to open up two additional border crossings.

On 13 February, however, the Assad regime preempted any UNSC action and opened two more border crossings into the area for three months.

“It’s not easy for Russia to veto while there is an earthquake. They instructed the regime to [open the border crossings] to avoid the veto, so they won’t get the blame for preventing aid,” Fadel Abdelghany, the founder of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, told TNA.

While the opening of two more border crossings into north Syria will help increase aid, critics have said that it is only a short-term solution and point to a need for greater reform to the UN aid system.

Lund pointed out that Assad’s authorisation of the new border crossings will expire in May – just ahead of the UNSC vote in July to extend the UN’s use of the Bab al-Hawa crossing for another year.

“This sets the stage for a double negotiation in which Assad’s government will play a larger role than previously, when Russia was virtually alone at the centre of attention,” Lund said. Civil society organisations have said that the UN does not actually need authorisation to send aid to Syria.

Syrian officials have spent years blocking aid shipments to opposition areas. [Getty]

Amnesty International in July 2022 said that international organisations may “conduct temporary humanitarian relief operations to bring life-saving supplies to a people in extreme need, when no alternatives exist”.

International solidarity with Syrians and outrage over the lack of international aid to parts of Syria has galvanised efforts to change the UN aid regime in Syria.

There is already lobbying happening of UNSC members to ask for a resolution to authorise more border crossings into Syria – and if that fails, a resolution can be put forth at the UN General Assembly.

Passing a resolution expanding aid access to northwest Syria would be a reversal of the historical trend, which has seen Russia and China slowly whittle away aid access to the area. It remains to be seen if international public pressure remains high until July as news of the earthquake fades from the headlines.

Regardless of whether or not a resolution is passed through the UN to expand aid access in Syria, international rights bodies have asserted that aid should continue to flow.

William Christou is The New Arab's Levantine correspondent, covering the politics of the Levant and the Mediterranean.

Follow him on Twitter: @will_christou