Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad visited the UAE on 18 March, his first trip to an Arab country since the revolution against his regime began in 2011. In the UAE, Assad met with several senior Emirati officials, most notably Mohamed bin Zayed and Mohamed bin Rashed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the ruler of Dubai. The UAE and Syria issued separate statements about the visit.
The Syrian side focused on economics and investments, while the Emiratis focused on political and strategic issues. But whether in the Arab world or beyond, the statements do not plausibly justify the unexpected move which counters the Gulf states’ opposition to normalising relations with the Syrian regime. For a long time the Arab boycott of the Syrian regime demanded the overthrow of Al-Assad regime, but this was met with brutal violence by the state. Al-Assad only visited his allies Russia and Iran.
The UAE visit comes at a time when the global balance of power has tipped, what is more, and new political and military maps are being drawn in the Middle East and Europe. Al-Assad’s allies in Moscow are facing international sanctions as they seek to bolster their Syrian military presence by land, sea and air. Russia was the foremost supporter of Al-Assad’s visit to UAE. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow believes in reviving efforts to return Syria to the Arab League. Lavrov thanked the UAE for its recent steps towards Damascus, especially a visit by the UAE Foreign Minister to Syria in October 2021.
The UK was quick to criticise any country that wants to normalise relations with the head of the Syria regime. London condemned Al-Assad’s visit to the UAE and urged all parties to uphold Security Council Resolution 2254. It also called on the Syrian regime and its supporters to immediately halt all their grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.
Josep Borrell Fontelles, high representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said that during a meeting with UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen, EU foreign ministers “reiterated the position of the EU: no normalisation with the Al-Assad regime; no reconstruction; and no sanctions relief until a political solution is reached in compliance with Security Council Resolution 2254.”
The US State Department also condemned Al-Assad’s Gulf visit, saying it legitimises the regime. State Department Spokesman Ned Price said Washington is “profoundly disappointed and troubled by this apparent attempt to legitimise Bashar Al-Assad. He remains responsible and accountable for the death and suffering of countless Syrians, the displacement of more than half of the pre-war Syrian population, and the arbitrary detention and disappearance of over 150,000 Syrian men, women and children.”
And yet UAE seems to have started on a path that will distance it from the US and brings it closer to Russia. This could upset the balance of power in both the Gulf and the Middle East at large.
Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition, represented by the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), described the UAE’s reception of Al-Assad as “a grave precedent that violates the decisions of the Arab League and international sanctions, and rewards [Assad] for his crimes. It also disregards the blood of one million Syrian martyrs.” The SNC urged the UAE to revise its position and uphold the overall Arab and international position of isolating the regime, not normalising relations or salvaging it.”
When the Syrian crisis began in 2011, the Arab League suspended Syria’s membership and most countries severed ties with Damascus, including the UAE. Since last year, however, there have been reports of normalising relations between Damascus and Arab countries. Some believed this was linked to Russia trying to bring the Al-Assad regime back into the Arab fold. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Lavrov went on several trips to Arab countries during that time, and discussed the need for Syria to return to the Arab milieu.
But the real reasons behind Al-Assad’s recent trip remain a mystery. Some claim the UAE is pursuing this route to lure the Syrian regime away from Iran’s clutches. But this is unlikely since major powers were unable to achieve this, even the US, Europe and, more recently, Russia.
Some Syrian and Arab analysts believe Al-Assad went to the UAE to ask for immediate food aid in the form of wheat, rice, cooking oil and sugar, since stockpiles in Syria will only last another three months after which millions of Syrians will suffer a serious food crisis.
One member of the opposition’s negotiation committee told Al-Ahram Weekly, “It is unlikely that there is a message from Israel via an Emirati middleman that needed to be delivered, since there are direct contacts between the Syrian regime and Israel. In any case, Russia is a more reliable mediator than any other.
“It is more likely this is about economics and investments because the Syrian regime fears that the US and Europe will freeze or confiscate the assets of key figures in the Syrian regime around the world, as the US had done, especially since Washington said this month will be one of accountability for the Syrian regime regarding its wealth and sources of funds. The regime may be thinking of transferring funds to the UAE, which could be a safe haven where funds will not be seized or confiscated.”
Moheeb Salha, a writer, said, “US-Gulf relations usually cool down when Democrats are in the White House, and improve when Republicans are in power. The UAE was unresponsive to requests by Biden’s administration regarding punitive measures against Moscow, because the UAE has economic, military and security relations with Moscow. It is also an opportunity for the UAE to play the two sides off against each other to serve its own oil and geo-strategic interests.”
Opposition writer Nabil Al-Alie told the Weekly: “What the UAE did is cause for concern, strategically. Warmer relations with Damascus is a diplomatic victory for Moscow and comes at a moment when Al-Assad expressed support for Russia’s war on Ukraine. It is also a move that distances and defies the US and Europe, which creates the impression that the UAE wants to become a key player and decision-maker in the Middle East. The only setback is that the UAE is relying on a dictator [Assad] who destroyed his country, to achieve this goal or send this message.”
The US may be angry with the UAE for receiving Al-Assad, and Russia may be relieved by this move. Iran, meanwhile, will be cautious and suspicious, and the Syrian opposition is despondent and disappointed. It is difficult to decide if the visit benefited Al-Assad; it was not an official visit and did not have the trappings of a head of state visit. There were no ceremonies, receptions, official dinners or prior announcements. It is certain, however, that a new picture of the Middle East is being drawn and will be finalised later.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly