Gulf links to Syria bolstered by Ukraine war

Amid their growing distance from western powers, Gulf states have continued to try and maintain a neutral stance on the Ukraine crisis (see Ukraine war accentuates monarchies’ tricky relations with western powers). However, a weakened Russia could lead to the GCC powers stepping up their outreach to the pariah state of President Bashar Al-Assad’s Syria. That engagement has been energetically driven by the UAE, whose foreign affairs and international co-operation minister Abdullah Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan visited the Syrian capital in November for talks with Assad (GSN 1,136/13).

More controversially, the UAE is reported to be the base for a growing number of Syrian businesses using local shell companies to avoid sanctions. The cross-border networks the Assad regime has developed to evade sanctions are now operating more openly than in the past. In November, sanctioned Syrian airline Cham Wings started regular flights from Damascus to Abu Dhabi.

The UAE Ministry of Economy has said the value of bilateral non-oil trade reached $272m in H1 2021, facilitated by the UAE’s relaxation of visa restrictions on Syrians. Dubai Expo 2020 has proved a useful venue to engage with Syrian business executives and government officials.

There are tangible signs of UAE influence paying off in Damascus, such as a contract announced in November for a consortium of unnamed Emirati companies to build a 300MW solar power station in a Damascus suburb.

Bahrain and Oman have followed the UAE lead in being increasingly friendly to Assad. In December, Bahrain appointed Waheed Mubarak Sayyar as its first ambassador to Damascus since 2011. Oman, which unlike other GCC states kept its Syrian embassy open throughout the war, sent foreign minister Badr Hamad Al-Busaidi to Damascus in January (GSN 1,140/7). Sultan Haitham Bin Tariq Al-Said was the first Gulf leader to extend congratulations to Assad on his re-election in May 2021.

Qatari, Saudi reluctance

In contrast, Doha has been far more reluctant to mend fences with Assad. In London in mid-February, Qatari foreign affairs minister Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani said: “There are causes that we severed ties with the regime and these causes are still there. [Assad] didn’t change anything. He’s still bombing his people, he’s still displacing his own people, he’s still holding his people as hostages” (GSN 1,141/16).

Qatar’s position is influenced by its strong ties with Turkey. “The Turks remain the principal sponsors of the formal opposition and so it made sense in a way for its regional partner Qatar to become to become a kind of focal point for efforts by the opposition to rethink themselves,” said Brookings Institution non-resident senior fellow Steven Heydeman.

Saudi Arabia has also approached Syria far more cautiously. It was Saudi resistance that led to a request from Egypt, Iraq and Algeria to restore Syria’s full membership in the League of Arab States to be dropped. The decision – which the UAE has also argued in favour of – has been put on hold until later this year. It is one reason for the planned Algiers Arab League summit’s continued postponement.

Qatari and Saudi scepticism has irritated Damascus. In December, Syrian deputy foreign minister Bashar Al-Jaafari accused the two countries of obstructing the regime’s return to the Arab League. That followed comments from Saudi Arabia’s UN ambassador Abdullah Al-Mouallimi over the Syrian regime’s claims that the decade of conflict was over.

Despite Saudi reticence at a full rehabilitation, Riyadh has been pragmatic on intelligence-sharing with Damascus. Assad’s General Intelligence chief Hussam Louqa met Saudi officials at the Arab Intelligence Forum in Cairo in November. His Saudi counterpart Khalid Al-Humaidan was reported to have visited the Syrian capital in May 2021.

“It’s clear that this isn’t a full steam ahead process, but the steps taken by the UAE and by some of the other regional governments to renew ties and to send ministers to Damascus, to host Syrian officials in Arab capitals, is more substantive and meaningful than some are suggesting,” said Heydeman.

Tackling Iranian influence

The UAE appears to be motivated by concern over Iranian influence in Syria and the lack of any effective Arab counterweight to Damascus, combined with a recognition that Assad has survived, even if he doesn’t have full control over Syrian territory.

“In the UAE’s view, it’s foolish to imagine that isolation is going to produce either a change in regime behaviour or open up opportunities for diluting Iran’s influence,” said Heydeman. “This is the latest iteration of the decades-old ‘wedge’ strategy of trying to separate Iran and Syria, and it’s failed at every juncture – and will fail now. The Syrian regime will simply pocket the gains of better ties with the Gulf while giving nothing in return.”

The Gulf states are keenly aware that Syria’s neighbours are chafing at the restrictions placed on them. Jordan moved last year to reopen its main border crossing at Al-Nassib. In January, Syrian, Lebanese and Jordanian officials agreed to move ahead with a joint electricity supply deal. These moves offer some side benefits to the GCC – the opening of the land border to Jordan, for example, makes it easier for Lebanese and Syrian hauliers to transport goods to the Gulf states. Trade can also flow more freely in the opposite direction (GSN 1,138/1).

The war in Ukraine may continue to have a bearing on the situation in the years ahead. A devastated Russian economy will be unable to provide much help to Damascus and, given Assad’s ties to Putin, it seems unlikely that American or European money will flow into post-conflict Syria either. GCC states are among the few other plausible investors, particularly given their desire to counter Iranian influence.

Tehran’s position is particularly pronounced in eastern Syria, where it has invested in construction and cultural projects, focused on key towns such as Deir Ezzour. Iran will continue to extend its ‘retail level’ presence in Syria, while leaving state-level machinations to Moscow. In this context, perhaps the best the UAE and its partners can hope for is to provide a form of buffer force in Syria. Queen Mary University international relations professor Chris Phillips said Abu Dhabi could position itself as a third external force in Syria, behind Moscow and Tehran. This could give it an edge over rivals Turkey and Saudi Arabia and would be consistent with its incremental regional diplomacy of recent years.

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