UAE coronavirus aid to Syrians shouldn't mean rehabilitating Assad

UAE coronavirus aid to Syrians shouldn't mean rehabilitating Assad
Comment: Don't be fooled, it's not humanitarian help UAE is offering Assad, its normalisation of his tyrannical regime, writes Sam Hamad
6 min read
30 Mar, 2020
In addition to one death, Syria has officially reported nine other coronavirus cases [AFP]
Syria has recorded its first death from coronavirus. Official cases in the country have risen to nine, but medics and on the ground observers report there are many more.

There's no doubt that the war-ravaged Syrian people need and deserve every bit of help they can get against coronavirus, but there is a clear line between understanding the humanitarian help that Syrians need to fight an epidemic, and the rehabilitation of President Assad.

Unfortunately, this distinction is entirely absent from the thinking of Mohamed bin Zayed (MbZ), the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and the de facto ruler of the Emirates.

On Friday, following news of an increase of coronavirus cases in Syria, MbZ tweeted that he had, "discussed with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad updates on coronavirus", saying he assured the genocidal tyrant of "the support of the UAE and its willingness to help the Syrian people". 

Their phone call is the first public acknowledgement of overt contact between an Arab leader and Assad since the revolution, counter-revolution and subsequent genocide. 

MbZ's tweet included an appeal to humanitarianism, concluding that "humanitarian solidarity during trying times supersedes all matters, and Syria and her people will not stand alone". 

The UAE is effectively exploiting coronavirus to achieve what it has been trying to do for years

There ought to be no mistake about it: MbZ's motivation here is an escalation in what has been the long-held will of the UAE to rehabilitate Assad and normalise relations with his regime. There's a strong historic argument that the UAE has always been unwilling to turn against Assad, instead pulled in that direction by regional peer pressure, especially from its strongest regional ally Saudi Arabia. 

Saudi Arabia, which was itself slow to cut ties with Assad as the tyrant began to murder innocent protesters in what would become the first genocide of the 21st century, faced internal pressures to side with the Syrian opposition, while it calculated that the rebellion would be victorious.

But the UAE never faced any such internal pressures and was widely seen to be largely mirroring Saudi policy - though it was more accurately hedging its bets. Even at this early stage, while the UAE formally asked the Baathist ambassador to leave the country, they took the step of maintaining a low-level diplomatic Baathist presence, while it has also provided a safe haven for many Assad family members, and high-ranking regime figures. 

In 2018, the UAE, along with the sectarian autocracy in Bahrain, broke the already flimsy boycott of the Assad regime, and reopened its embassy in Damascus. 

MbZ's appeal to humanitarian ecumenism ought to fool no one regarding its overt intentions - by eliding support for the genocidal tyrant with the interests of "the Syrian people", the UAE is effectively exploiting coronavirus to achieve what it has been trying to do for years, namely move towards a formal region-wide "thawing" of relations with Assad.

Read more: UAE mercenaries reveal divisive ambitions in Yemen, Libya

Its ultimate aim will be to aid Assad in totally normalising his regime in the region, and coronavirus provides as good a pretext as any for an entity as devoid of ethics and morality as the UAE. 

It was Aesop who said you can get the measure of a person by the company they keep – this old adage ought to apply to states. The UAE has obviously been the primary benefactor of the Abdel Fattah el Sisi and his brutal counter-revolutionary regime, which has also emerged over the years as an ally and weapons-supplier to Assad. 

Moreover, the UAE has also been the primary sponsor of Khalifa Haftar, as he wages a war of counter-revolution in Libya, with the primary aim of stopping anything even approaching functional democracy in that country. 

In Yemen, the UAE's 
strategy has effectively been to prolong that conflict as long as possible, preferring conditions of mass murder, starvation and, yes, disease, to the very notion of any outcome that could lead to democracy in the region.

Given that the UAE has singled out democratisation as the greatest threat to its interests in the region, and given it has backed this up with hard support for tyrants and seemingly endless wars, it was always more inclined to support a tyrant like Assad, than any kind of democratic opposition. 

Beyond Syria, you won't hear UAE propose to use its considerable oil resources to help anyone else in the regional fight

Those who may think this take on the UAE's "humanitarian appeal" to "the Syrian people" is cynical, they ought to consider that during the grave, horrific and unprecedented humanitarian crisis in Idlib, the UAE was nowhere to be found with its sudden urge for humanitarianism. 

In fact, along with reopening its embassy in Damascus, in August 2019, at a time when Assad was basking in genocidal glory, the UAE sent a large delegation to a trade fair in Damascus, where the two entities "discussed means of strengthening economic cooperation and commercial exchange."

Even worse, in December 2019, when Assad-Iran-Russia's forces were gearing up to ethnically cleanse, murder and maim millions of Syrians trapped in Idlib, one of the UAE's chief diplomats was fawning over Assad for his "wise leadership" and praising the "solid and stable" relationship between the two regimes. 

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It was in the same month that at the request of Assad, the UAE happily arrested the Syrian businessman Mohannad Al-Masri charges of "financing terrorism", but whose sole crime was advocating the Turkish plan for a safe zone in Idlib. 

Even beyond Syria, you won't hear the UAE propose to use its considerable oil resources to help anyone else in the regional fight against coronavirus, with all the odds of kleptocracy, war and, in the case of Palestinians, Israeli ethnofascist discrimination stacked against them. 

The UAE is literally antithetical to any true humanitarianism. Its entire stated policy is to keep as many people - Egyptians, Syrians, Libyans, Yemenis, Bahrainis and the foreign residents it treats as slaves within its own borders - in conditions of vicious tyranny and/or endless war. 

To reiterate: coronavirus has the capacity to ravage the already war-torn Syrian people, within a country that essentially no longer has a viable health system due to almost a decade of Assad waging war.

The virus will not differentiate between someone who supports the regime and someone who does not - if it gains widespread access to Syrians, it could have devastating effects.

But rehabilitating Assad - the sole reason that every single person in Syria could potentially be so badly exposed to coronavirus - is not the way forward. 

By investing aid for coronavirus directly through Assad, you can literally guarantee that if the virus breaks out in rebel-held Idlib, none of the aid will get to the opposition. 

In fact, given the UAE's ultimate aim, shared with Assad and his backers, is to maintain a regional order of brutal tyranny, the virus reaching the most vulnerable areas of Syria's Idlib may not be considered so much of a disaster, after all. 

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.