Though Abu Dhabi Crown-Prince Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed has been talking over the phone to many world leaders in the last few days, his conversation with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad on Friday was a focus of particular attention.
It was the first public contact between a Gulf leader and Al-Assad since the start of the war in Syria, and it came at a time of changing Arab attitudes towards Syria.
No doubt the Emirati leader meant to tell Syria that it was not alone in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. He has done the same with Iran on humanitarian grounds in a gesture meant to show that the UAE holds to its principles regardless of political animosity.
According to an official statement, the call to Al-Assad focused on “the latest developments and effects of the coronavirus Covid-19 on the region and the world at large.”
Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed tweeted that “I discussed with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad updates on Covid-19. I assured him of the support of the UAE and its willingness to help the Syrian people. Humanitarian solidarity during trying times supersedes all matters, and Syria and her people will not stand alone.”
A couple of years ago, the UAE softened its stance on Damascus as part of its drive to combat terrorist groups wreaking havoc in the region. In late 2018, the UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus after an Arab diplomatic boycott after the Syrian Civil War had erupted in 2011.
Though the embassy was at a chargé d’affaires level, it was a significant step in re-accommodating Syria into the Arab fold. Abu Dhabi then kept the rapprochement almost the same as Jordan’s opening towards Syria.
However, talk about growing Gulf warmth towards Damascus could still be premature, as the Syrian government is still strongly allied with Iran and its proxies, especially the Lebanese group Hizbullah which the Gulf countries accuse of sabotaging peace in the region.
The main Gulf state, Saudi Arabia, is not keen on opening to the Syrian regime, and militant groups in north-west Syria are supported mainly by Turkey, which Saudi Arabia sees as a temporary foe.
The UAE shares the same sentiments towards Turkey, mainly because of the Emirati position of fighting the militant Islamist groups that Turkey supports. At the time of the first overtures towards Damascus by the UAE and Jordan, some thought there might be a new polarisation between moderate Arab countries – most Gulf countries plus Egypt and Jordan – on the one side and a pro-Muslim Brotherhood side represented by Turkey and its Gulf ally Qatar on the other.
This was also at the height of the Quartet of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain’s boycott of Qatar because of its support for the Brotherhood and its terrorist offshoots.
There is another arena of polarisation in Libya, where Turkey and Qatar support militias in Tripoli threatening to embolden terrorism in North Africa, and the UAE and Saudi Arabia stand by the Libyan National Army fighting terrorists from its base in the east of the country.
According to many analysts in the Gulf, the case of Syria is different, not only because of its alliance with Iran and Hizbullah, but also because of other factors that go beyond regional politics. The idea of the UAE leading an Arab move to rehabilitate Al-Assad seems implausible, even if some Syrian analysts have even raised hopes of Syria’s official return to the Arab League.
Syrian political analyst Ghassan Youssef told the Russian Arabic-language website Sputnik that “the phone call [by the UAE leader] may be a prelude to Syria’s return to the Arab League,” adding that “relations between Syria and the Gulf countries have become good except for Qatar.”
However, a Gulf analyst described the suggestion as “far-fetched” and reiterated that the UAE’s position was humanitarian. He said that the UAE had been providing aid to Syrian refugees in countries neighbouring Syria as an apolitical effort.
“The call is just a continuation of that Emirati position,” he said.
Nevertheless, the UAE’s change of policy towards Syria over the last two years is notable. Whether this will lead to more thawing of the ice between Damascus and the Gulf is a matter of wait and see.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly