Renormalising with Syria: The trend in the Gulf

A Syrian boy stands with a toy-gun in front of a bullet-riddled wall in the rebel-held town of Douma, on the eastern outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus, on April 13, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Sameer Al-Doumy
7 min read
29 December, 2021

Unlike leaderships in Western countries, Arab governments have become increasingly supportive of the rehabilitation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

In recent years, a list of these Arab states have restored their diplomatic relations with Damascus. Most governments in the Arab region have basically come to terms with the Syrian regime’s survival.

Among leaderships in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), a growing view is that reconciliation with Damascus is essentially now about coming to terms with the inevitable.

Some MENA countries such as Algeria and Oman never cut off diplomatic ties with Damascus or armed militias fighting the Syrian regime. Others, including Jordan, have come a full 180 degrees, moving from once being outright hostile toward Assad’s government to seeking a new chapter in ties with the Syrian regime which is based on cooperation and brotherly relations.

Some Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members are on the same page as Amman when it comes to this sensitive issue. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is playing a dominant role in terms of driving this Gulf push for renormalising relations with Damascus and advocating Syria’s return to the Arab League. 

"Arab governments have become increasingly supportive of the rehabilitation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime"

Since the UAE and Syria restored official diplomatic relations three years ago, Abu Dhabi has taken bold steps to boost Assad’s standing in the Arab world and beyond. Just last month, the UAE’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan visited Assad in Damascus.

He was the most senior Emirati dignitary to make an official trip to Syria since the country’s conflict broke out in 2011. Looking ahead at 2022, it is safe to assume that the Emiratis will continue working to bring Syria back into the region’s diplomatic fold.

Implications for US foreign policy

To an extent, the UAE’s approach to Syria is demonstrative of how Abu Dhabi does not take orders from either the US or Saudi Arabia. For a few years, the Emiratis have dealt with Syria independently and based on the UAE’s own understandings of its national interests.

Yet there is no denying that the deepening of Emirati-Syrian relations irks the Biden administration, just as it did the Trump administration. But many experts doubt that the US will put much pressure on the Emiratis to slow things down with Damascus.

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“Washington has made it clear that Syria is a relatively low priority issue, especially the civil war itself,” said Ryan Bohl, a Middle East analyst at risk consultancy Stratfor/Rane, in an interview with The New Arab. “The UAE seems safe for now to try to push past the US-led isolation campaign. But it will need to be careful: overtly crossing US sanctions law could readily give fodder to more critical voices in Congress that want to reign in Emirati regional behaviour.”

If the UAE’s support for Assad is mostly moral and diplomatic, there might not be much of a reaction from Biden’s team. But with the US continuing to impose the Caesar Act, the UAE will continue to be very restricted in terms of what could otherwise become stronger economic, trade, investment, and defence relations with Syria. The same is true for Egypt, Bahrain, Oman, and other Arab states which want Syria’s isolation to end.

But some Gulf Arab states see a future in which the Caesar Act is less relevant. Abu Dhabi and other Gulf capitals’ efforts to renormalise Assad’s regional and international standing “will pave the road for Syria's reintegration into the Arab world once it's clear that Western sanctions are either to be lifted or won't be enforced,” explained Bohl.

In defence of mending its relationship with Syria, Abu Dhabi frames its strengthening ties to Assad’s regime as necessary for pan-Arab efforts to counter Iran and Turkey’s influence in the Levant.

Assad poster1 [Getty]
Not all in the GCC favour renormalising relations with Assad's government. [Getty]

Only by re-engaging Damascus can Arab states bring Syria back to the Arab world’s geopolitical orbit of influence while creating greater distance between Damascus and Tehran, according to this argument in favour of restoring diplomatic relations with Syria’s regime. The UAE’s leadership concludes that if Assad’s government is treated as a pariah, Syria would be left with practically no choice but to remain heavily dependent on Iran.

Yet it remains to be seen the extent to which the UAE and Arab countries can lure Syria away from Iran’s geopolitical orbit. Considering how entrenched the Iranians have become in the country’s security landscape and economy following the past ten years of conflict, there is good reason to question the UAE’s ability to weaken Tehran’s influence in Syria.

With Assad’s regime desperate to move past the nearly 11-year civil war and cease to be viewed as a global pariah, such support from the UAE has been very welcome in Damascus. Syria’s government will want to further strengthen ties with Abu Dhabi, which has much lobbying influence in Washington and other Western capitals.

A closer relationship between Syria and the UAE can help the former in terms of its relationship with Washington, which continues imposing stringent Trump-era sanctions on Damascus. To be sure, if or when the Biden administration lifts the Caesar Act, it would be easy to imagine Emirati investors putting a lot of money into Syria’s reconstruction and redevelopment.

"Qatar and Saudi Arabia have refused to join the push to rehabilitate Assad"

No Gulf consensus towards Assad

Not all in the GCC favour renormalising relations with Assad’s government. As two of the main sponsors of anti-Assad militias early in the Syrian crisis, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have refused to join the push to rehabilitate Assad.

Recently, officials from Doha and Riyadh have taken to international forums to voice their opposition to Assad’s rule in Syria. While maintaining their current stances against Syria’s government, Qatar and Saudi Arabia may stand out in the Arab region as the two main Arab League members opposed to bringing the Assad regime back into the region’s diplomatic arena.

This position, even if perhaps very principled, will result in the Qataris and Saudis missing out on some of the economic, investment, and trade opportunities that the UAE will likely benefit from down the line in a post-Caesar Act period.  

In Doha, this firm stance against “legitimising” Assad has much to do with a general view that Assad’s crimes permanently cost him the right to govern. This is a view shared by high-ranking government officials in Doha as well as average Qatari citizens. There is no influential individual or constituency in Qatar calling for a rapprochement with the Syrian regime.  

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Riyadh, more than Doha, has engaged Syria’s government in recent years. Yet Saudi Arabia appears to have not yet arrived at a point of wanting to restore official diplomatic ties with Damascus.

Domestic opinion in the kingdom could be one factor contributing to Riyadh’s reluctance to follow in Abu Dhabi, Amman, and Manama’s footsteps in terms of reembracing Assad’s “legitimacy”. Polling data from Saudi Arabia shows that the government’s refusal to renormalise with Syria enjoys popular support.

Most likely, Doha will be the last Arab capital to renormalise relations with Assad’s regime. Therefore, Qatar may remain closely aligned with Western powers and Turkey on these delicate questions about how or when to engage the Syrian government.

"Washington has made it clear that Syria is a relatively low priority issue, especially the civil war itself"

Despite Qatar and Saudi Arabia showing, at least for now, no major interest in restoring official ties with Damascus, the general trend in the Arab region is toward renormalisation with Assad. With some Gulf states wanting to bring the Syrian regime out of isolation, it seems that in 2022 it will mainly be Washington that prevents this process of GCC-Syria reconciliation from moving at a faster rate.

If next year the Biden administration becomes less committed to enforcing policies aimed at isolating the Syrian government, some GCC states - chiefly the UAE - might make some bold moves to further boost Assad’s regional and international standing.

Looking ahead to 2022 and beyond, a possible scenario to consider would be Assad himself visiting a GCC state - a visit that would send a powerful message about the Syrian regime’s survival and the whitewashing of many of its crimes by regional states that seek to enter a new chapter of reconciliation with Damascus.  

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. 

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero