Russia and the UAE's growing synergy in Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin is received by Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, on 15 October 2019. [Getty]
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With the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has pursued an ambitious foreign policy. Since the Arab Spring uprisings a decade ago, especially 2013 onward, Abu Dhabi has taken on a more direct role in the power struggles playing out across the Middle East.

The Emiratis have aligned closely with Saudi Arabia throughout much of the post-2011 era, with Abu Dhabi and Riyadh sharing counter-revolutionary visions for the region.

Clear examples have included Saudi and Emirati support for Bahrain's royal family, Egypt's post-2013 coup regime, and Libyan General Khalifa Haftar, as well as the two Arabian powerhouses' launch of "Operation Decisive Storm" in Yemen in 2015 and the 2017 - 2021 blockade of Qatar.

Nonetheless, recent developments in Saudi Arabia-UAE relations highlight Abu Dhabi's desire to conduct an independent approach to the Middle East that does not leave the UAE in Saudi Arabia's shadow. 

"The Russian intervention in Syria was a game-changer for the UAE. Since that point, Abu Dhabi has conducted a foreign policy vis-à-vis Damascus that is increasingly at odds with Western states"

Although Riyadh and Abu Dhabi still perceive regional threats similarly, there is a divergence between the two Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states when it comes to specific issues where the two countries have different priorities, perspectives, tactics, and interests.

Along with other regional files - such as the Saudi-Qatari reconciliation, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in Yemen, and the Abraham Accords - Abu Dhabi's approach to Syria and its regime led by Bashar al-Assad is a case in point.

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UAE support for Russia in Syria

During the first years of the Syrian conflict, the UAE mostly aligned with Saudi Arabia by cutting off relations with Assad's government and providing some degree of support to anti-regime forces. In 2014, the UAE accompanied Saudi Arabia and some Western powers in funding more than 49 Syrian opposition brigades to establish the Southern Front against Assad's regime. 

That same year, the UAE's Vice President and ruler of Dubai, Prime Minister Mohammed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, stated: "Assad will take a long time... but if you kill your people you can't stay… Eventually, he will go". 

That said, the UAE never went as far in that direction as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or Turkey. The main reason had to do with Abu Dhabi's fears that any post-Assad order could be run by Islamists - an outcome that MbZ did not welcome for geopolitical reasons.

Syrian woman Ghouta - Getty
A woman and her child walk amidst the devastation of a Syrian regime and Russian siege on Eastern Ghouta in 2018. [Getty]

Russia's direct military intervention in Syria helped the Syrian army and its allies take back land previously held by the Islamic State (IS) and rebel groups.

Unlike Saudi Arabia and the US, Abu Dhabi voiced support for Moscow's intervention in Syria. The UAE praised the Russian Air Force's strikes against various opposition groups, stating that these operations targeted Moscow and Abu Dhabi's "common enemy". 

The Russian intervention in Syria was a game-changer for the UAE. Since that point, Abu Dhabi has conducted a foreign policy vis-à-vis Damascus that is increasingly at odds with Western states and more aligned with Russia.

Normalising relations with Assad

By 2016, the UAE suggested re-normalising relations with Syria to reduce Assad's dependence on Tehran and decrease Iran's influence over Syria. However, Washington and Riyadh quickly rejected this suggestion. But the fact that Abu Dhabi expressed its potential interest in re-embracing the Damascus regime led observers to suspect that the UAE was possibly on the verge of exiting the anti-Assad camp.

In December 2018, the UAE announced the reopening of its diplomatic mission in the Syrian capital, which has been followed by Emirati diplomats in Damascus praising Assad's "wisdom".

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By early 2019, the UAE had restored direct flights to Syria and re-established communications with Syria and Syrian delegations to expand bilateral trades. Abu Dhabi was so persistent in its new policy toward Syria that, despite US pressure, the UAE hosted more than 40 Syrian businessmen in August 2019, some of whom were on Washington's sanctions list.

Additionally, after the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020, the Emiratis stepped up to provide Syria with medical assistance following a phone conversation between MbZ and Assad that the Crown Prince announced via Twitter.

The UAE's reasons for backing Assad

Several important factors led to the shift in the UAE's Syria policy. 

First, Abu Dhabi wants to work with Arab states that, from the UAE's perspective, could serve as bulwarks to restrict the expansion of Turkey's regional influence. With the UAE's leadership perceiving a grave threat from Ankara's so-called "neo-Ottoman" agenda in the region, Abu Dhabi sees the Assad regime as a partner to work with in terms of countering Turkey's foreign policy in northern Syria.

Second, the UAE has seen a potential opportunity to weaken Iran's hand in Syria by trying to help Damascus return to the Arab world's diplomatic and political fold. As Emirati officials see it, the only alternative is to leave Assad's regime believing it has no choice but to maintain its relationship with the Islamic Republic, which has grown much stronger since the Syrian crisis erupted in 2011.

"Pushing back against Iran and Turkey became the UAE's main goal in relation to Syria"

Anwar Gargash, the UAE's then-Foreign Minister, explained his country's decision to reopen diplomatic relations with Syria as a "counteraction to Iranian and Turkish expansionist policies". 

Simply put, removing Assad ceased to be Abu Dhabi's priority. Instead, pushing back against Iran and Turkey became the UAE's main goals in relation to Syria.

Third, Abu Dhabi has come to terms with the reality of the Syrian regime's "victory" in the conflict, seeing the re-normalisation of ties as essentially coming to terms with the inevitable.

The UAE saw it as prudent to withdraw its bet on a dying horse that was the Syrian opposition that not only failed to topple Assad, but also encompassed certain forces that Abu Dhabi feared more than the Ba'athist regime in Damascus.

Assad Aleppo - AFP
A giant poster of Bashar al-Assad is seen in the ruins of Aleppo in 2017 a month after Syrian regime forces retook the northern city in a brutal campaign. [Getty]

Fourth, Emirati leaders and investors have seen economic opportunities in Syria with the country needing billions for reconstruction and redevelopment. Of course, for Abu Dhabi, this is not about charity, but instead about gaining greater influence in Syria that can render the regime in Damascus more UAE-friendly.

As the US-imposed Caesar Act is preventing the Emiratis and Syrians from making major deals for the war-torn country's reconstruction projects, the UAE has made it clear that it believes Washington should lift such sanctions that constitute financial warfare against Syria.

In addition to these four reasons, one cannot overlook the growing UAE-Russia relationship.

When Russia intensified its direct military intervention in Syria in 2015, the UAE had hopes for Assad shifting loyalty away from Tehran and toward Moscow. The view was that Russia's actions in Syria could lead to the curtailing of Iran's presence in the war-torn country, notwithstanding the extent to which Moscow and Tehran were closely aligned in terms of their struggle to keep Assad in power.

"The Syrian war has served to enhance Moscow's geopolitical influence in the Gulf region with the growing UAE-Russia partnership being critical to Russia's 'return' to the Middle East"

To encourage Russia to push back against Iran in Syria, the UAE tried to convince Washington to remove sanctions on Russia in exchange for Moscow working to cut off Iran's military network across Syria.

Today, the issue of Syria is one that pits not only Abu Dhabi and Riyadh against each other, but also the UAE against the US. As both the Trump and Biden administrations have made clear, the US takes a firm position that Assad is illegitimate. That Abu Dhabi is trying to help Assad become re-integrated into the Arab region's fold does not sit well with officialdom in Washington.

Thus far, US sanctions are preventing the UAE and other GCC states from making economic, trade, and investment deals with Damascus. But the UAE will probably continue to play a major role in terms of regional efforts to boost Assad's perceived legitimacy in mostly symbolic ways.

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While Qatar remains aligned with Western governments' anti-Assad positions, the UAE has sided with Russia and largely embraced Moscow and Beijing's narratives about Syria. Abu Dhabi does not believe that Syria needs Assad to step down and allow a democratic transition to move forward.

To achieve this goal of promoting "authoritarian stability" in the region and preventing civil space from opening up to Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups or other Islamist political factions, the UAE sees Assad as Syria's best option.

Ultimately, it can be safely argued that the decade-old Syrian war has served to enhance Moscow's geopolitical influence in the Gulf region with the growing UAE-Russia partnership being critical to Russia's "return" to the Middle East.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. 

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero

Arman Mahmoudian is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the University of South Florida, and a research associate at the Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies. Arman is also an analyst at Gulf State Analytics.

Follow him on Twitter: @MahmoudianArman