Syria: Neighbors Consider Normalizing Relationships With Damascus

3 MINS READDec 27, 2018 | 18:59 GMT
The Big Picture

The ongoing Syrian civil conflict has drawn regional and global actors into a maelstrom driven by competing interests for several years. As the conflict enters a final stage that leaves the Iranian- and Russian-backed government of Bashar al Assad as the victor, Middle Eastern and Arab states, especially those deeply opposed to Iran's encroaching influence, are adjusting to the reality.

What Happened

Syrian and Emirati media confirmed the reopening of the United Arab Emirates' embassy in Syria on Dec. 27. According to a statement issued by the Emirati foreign ministry, "The UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirms the resumption of work in the Emirati Embassy in Damascus. This step communicates the enthusiasm with which the UAE intends to restore relations between the two countries to their brotherly path."

Also this week, media reports emerged that a consensus is growing among Arab League members about readmitting Syria before the April 2019 Arab League summit in Tunisia.

Why It Matters

The reopening of the Emirati Embassy in Damascus communicates Abu Dhabi's willingness to work with Damascus on more equal footing and shows a level of acceptance of the Iranian-supported government in Syria. The United Arab Emirates is also an important interlocutor for Saudi Arabia, which often works in tandem with the Emiratis in delicate diplomatic matters. An Emirati embassy in Damascus signifies that both the most powerful Gulf Cooperation Council states are warming up to a Bashar al Assad-led Syria rather than working against it. This is likely in part to diminish Iranian influence in Syria and to help prevent further Turkish influence there. Gulf states are also under fewer legal and political constraints when it comes to reconstruction in Syria, and the Saudis and Emiratis can both benefit economically from rebuilding and reestablishing valuable trade with Syria for Gulf allies like Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.

By accepting Syria back into the Arab League, the Arab Gulf states would similarly be making a public display of shifting from opposing the Syrian government altogether to working with it more pragmatically and acknowledging its legitimacy.

Some Context

The Emirati Embassy in Damascus closed in 2011 when civil war erupted in Syria, and rumors of its reopening have circulated over the past year. As the conflict deepened, most of the powerful Arab states in the region sided with rebel forces, seeing an opportunity to oust an Iranian-backed government in Damascus and help install a government friendlier to the Gulf Arab states. As the Iranian- and Russian-backed al Assad government has steadily taken more territory from rebel forces over the past two years, the Arab states have been forced to respond, despite their enduring concern about Iran's reach into Syria.

Additionally, the recent U.S. military decision to leave Syria has prompted the Gulf states to accelerate their attempts to normalize relations with Syria, since the withdrawal will weaken the Syrian Democratic Forces that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were trying to work with.

Ultimately, changing their policy from undercutting al Assad to accepting him will reduce the power vacuum from which Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates' chief rivals — Iran and Turkey — have benefited up to now.

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