Gulf islands dispute: Why is Syria supporting the UAE over Iran?

Assad poster - Getty
7 min read
27 May, 2024

Syria supported a declaration at the Arab League summit in Bahrain this month promoting “the sovereignty of the United Arab Emirates over its three islands” in the Gulf, referring to Abu Musa, Lesser Tunb, and Greater Tunb.

Iran claims and has controlled these islands since 1971, seizing them as the United Kingdom withdrew from the area and the UAE declared independence.

The Arab League statement is nothing new, but Syria supporting it this year raised some eyebrows in Iran. Damascus was only readmitted into the League in May 2023 after a 13-year expulsion over its brutality in the civil war, which has killed an estimated 500,000 Syrians.

"This is Damascus realising that if they want to maintain constructive relations with the Arab League, it'll have to conform to overwhelming popular proposals like the status of Abu Musa"

Iran has had strategic ties with Syria stretching back decades. Syria was one of the few countries to support Iran during the bloody Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). More recently, Iran gave decisive support to embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his country’s civil war (2011-), deploying militiamen and providing billions of dollars to prop up Damascus.

Without Iranian backing, alongside Russia’s decisive 2015 military intervention, Assad may have lost power. Therefore, some in Iran were irritated when Damascus sided against Tehran in this longstanding territorial dispute with Abu Dhabi.

State media in Iran denounced the move, with one commentator equating it to “stabbing Iran in the back”. Another newspaper charged that Damascus “disregarded the historical facts,” which it claims demonstrate Iran’s rightful claim over the strategic islands near the narrow Strait of Hormuz.

Despite such public denunciations, the incident isn’t likely to cause any significant rift in Iran-Syria relations.

“I tend to think this is Damascus realising that if they want to maintain constructive relations with the League, it’ll have to conform to overwhelming popular proposals like the status of Abu Musa,” Ryan Bohl, a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at the risk intelligence company RANE, told The New Arab.

“Given the very limited influence of the League, Syria also recognises that this won’t harm Syrian-Iranian relations either,” Bohl said. “Tehran is likely to interpret this as symbolic and part of Syria’s normalisation process with the Arab world rather than a drift from Iran’s more important orbit.”

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Syria has extended recognition to Russia’s universally unpopular and unrecognised territorial claims to the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine and South Ossetia in Georgia. However, recognising Iran’s claim to Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs would prove much more politically complicated for Damascus.

“For Assad, recognising that Crimea belongs to Russia is not analogous to recognising that the islands belong to Iran,” Joshua Landis, Director of the Centre of Middle East Studies and the Farzaneh Family Center for Iranian and Persian Gulf Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told TNA.

“For a Baathist, Arab nationalist country to recognise that the three islands claimed by the UAE are Iranian would undermine everything that Assad claims to stand for,” Landis said. “Never mind that Iran spent billions of dollars and sent many soldiers to save his regime from collapse; Assad must stand by his Arabism.”

Bohl also sees Assad’s pan-Arabism at play on this issue.

The UAE has been key in easing the regional isolation of Damascus. [Getty]

“Syria still has a pan-Arab political ideology that backs the UAE’s claims to Abu Musa as part of a historical legacy. Switching over to back Iran’s claims would undermine Damascus’s (already thin) claims that it is a steward of pan-Arabism,” he said.

“And the reality is that what Syria says on the issue won’t change the status on the ground, given that Iran has shown no interest in negotiating the final status of these islands and the UAE lacks the capabilities to take them back by pressure or force.”

Arash Azizi, a senior lecturer in history and political science at Clemson University and author of The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the US, and Iran’s Global Ambitions, pointed out that Assad no longer needs Iran as much as he did earlier in Syria’s violent civil war.

“Now that it’s in the reconstruction phase, Syria obviously needs the Gulf Cooperation Council and Arab League more,” he told TNA. “Thus, this position will be received very poorly in Iran and also humiliate the Iranian leadership, which invested so much in its ties with Damascus.”

"Assad no longer needs Iran as much as he did earlier in Syria's violent civil war"

Azizi concurs with Landis that its recognition of Russia’s controversial territorial claims is under an entirely different context for Damascus.

“Syria is an anti-Western and pro-Russian position and doesn’t care for relations with Ukraine or Georgia, so it is not surprising that it would recognise South Ossetia and Russia’s annexation of Crimea,” he said. “But it now values its relationship with the GCC and Arab League, which is why it would never support Iran’s claims to Abu Musa.”

At the same time, while Syria gained readmission into the Arab League and re-established diplomatic relations with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, two leading GCC states, issues of contention remain between it and these Arab states. In particular, Syria’s continued export of the illicit Captagon drug across the Middle East, which the GCC hoped reviving ties would compel Damascus to curtail, remains a contentious issue.

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“Certainly, Assad is thinking about the sensibilities of the Arab League nations and eager to reassure fellow Arab leaders that Syria remains part of the Arab family,” Landis said. “All the same, he has made very few concessions to the Arab states, whether in stopping the drug trade or limiting Iranian influence or the power of pro-Iranian militias in Syria,” he added. “In this case, ideology and Arabism have trumped Iranian sensibilities.”

Renewed relations with these wealthy Arab Gulf states are essential for Assad.

“Syria’s links with the UAE have been key in determining its orientation,” Azizi said. “The UAE has deep pockets, excellent international links, and a core GCC position.”

He recalled that the GCC countries, alongside Turkey, were the main supporters of the opposition against Assad during the height of the civil war in the 2010s.

arab league
Despite readmission into the Arab League, there are still issues of contention between Syria and GCC states, especially over the Captagon trade. [Getty]

“For a key GCC country to rebuild links with Assad and help him back into the Arab League is important, and the UAE has done that for the past four years,” Azizi said. “Assad values this relationship very much and also knows that Iran doesn’t have a lot of choices anyways.”

Iran retains a substantial military presence in Syria. Its powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) paramilitary commands and organises several militias from across the region that have fought in Syria. They have also targeted the small US troop presence in Syria and Israel from Syrian territory.

Israel has assassinated several IRGC personnel and senior members with airstrikes in Syria, which intensified since October. An airstrike on the Iranian embassy compound in Damascus on 1 April resulted in Iran directly attacking Israel for the first time with missiles and drones on 13-14 April.

"Syria wants to signal that it wants closer and deeper relations with the Arab world, particularly for reconstruction aid, which is estimated at around $500 billion or more"

“Iran does not want to fight a major war with Israel via Syria, and neither does Syria itself,” RANE’s Bohl said. “While Damascus does want an end to Israel’s air campaign over its territory, with the civil war unresolved, Iranian forces remain key to keeping Assad in power. So, there’s not much room for Syria to reduce Iranian influence in the near term to address this constant Israeli covert war in its borders,” he added.

“Certainly, Syria wants to signal that it wants closer and deeper relations with the Arab world, particularly for reconstruction aid, which is estimated at around $500 billion or more,” Bohl noted, saying “to earn even aid pledges will require diplomatic manoeuvres such as this at the League, though US sanctions still stand in the way of a substantial reconstruction program for Damascus”.

Azizi described the continued IRGC presence as “an obvious violation” of Syria’s sovereignty, with some of its actions antagonising the “diverse populations” of the country. He also believes this presence is no longer needed for Assad’s continued survival.

“Assad doesn’t want to get his country into a fight with Israel that could prove lethal to him,” Azizi said. “He also doesn’t need the IRGC anymore as the war is in a stalemate, and there is no chance of any opposition groups marching to Damascus now,” he added.

“All of this is context to reduced reliance on Tehran.”

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon