Who is bringing Syria out of isolation, how and why?

MOSCOW, 22 Nov 2021, RUSSTRAT Institute.

Recently, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, paid a visit to Damascus and held talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This visit was dubbed “historic” in the Middle East because it took place for the first time since the start of the war in Syria in 2011. The UAE severed relations with Damascus in February 2012. And now, according to the Syrian media, “the parties are discussing bilateral relations between fraternal countries and ways to expand cooperation in various areas of mutual interest”.

Al Nahyan speaks of the UAE’s “interest in ensuring security, stability and unity,” expresses support for “any efforts aimed at ending the war in Syria, establishing stability in this country and meeting the aspirations of the Syrian people”. In turn, Assad recalled that fraternal relations have developed between the countries since the reign of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and stressed that “the UAE always takes an objective position with regard to Syria and its people”.

At the same time, the parties agreed to continue bilateral consultations on various issues “without outside interference.” As a result, according to the Associated Press, al-Nahyan and his talks with the Syrian leader “put an end to the ten-year ostracism of Assad by the Arab world”, although leaders of other Arab countries have recently communicated with Damascus.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II also held telephone talks with Assad for the first time since the start of the war in Syria. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry spoke about the need to “reintegrate Syria into the Arab community”. In 2018, the UAE opened its embassy in Damascus, and in 2021 called for Syria to return to the Arab League at the summit in Algeria, which will be held in March 2022.

Moreover, according to Foreign Policy magazine, the UAE “acted” at the highest level in Washington almost as the main lobbyists for the rejection of sanctions against Syria”, motivating this by referring to “the need to lead the reconstruction process there, as well as joint efforts to weaken the influence of Iran and Turkey on Syria”.

There is also a narrative according to which the administration of US President Joe Biden is “ready to “turn a blind eye” to how the Arab states will restore relations with Syrian President Assad in view of the upcoming withdrawal of US troops from Syria”, and is preparing the so-called “Arab way of Syrian settlement”.

In this regard, many American experts, reflecting on the level of conspiracy theory, argue that the Arab countries “moved towards Damascus after the agreements reached between the presidents of the United States Joe Biden and the president of Russia Vladimir Putin in Geneva in the summer”. But we will note that such conversations have been going on in the Middle East for several years against the background of the fact that, as the Lebanese publication Al Mayadeen noted, “Assad’s legitimacy is increasing”.

At the same time, it is indicated that the United States began to ease sanctions against Damascus and proposed a project according to which Egyptian natural gas would be supplied to Lebanon via a pipeline through Jordan and Syria. It is precisely this event that is perceived in the region as a “green light” from the United States to normalise relations with Syria. By the way, the Biden administration approved the agreements between Jordan and Syria on the resumption of passenger flights interrupted since 2012.

But if this is the case, then why did State Department spokesman Ned Price, commenting on Al Nahyan’s visit to Damascus, say that “we are concerned about the reports of this meeting and the signal it sends,” and that “the current administration does not intend to support any efforts to normalise relations or rehabilitate Assad”.

The same statement was made by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Moreover, according to the Washington Post, Washington even began to threaten sanctions against Arab countries. Most likely, in the combination conceived by the United States, something didn’t turn out as planned. Therefore, it seems that the United States, preparing the withdrawal of its troops from Syria, are working ahead of the curve.

And again, arguments from a series of conspiracy theories: the current position of the United States is allegedly connected with the possible resumption of negotiations on the Iranian nuclear issue, when the described sanctions relief of the Biden administration in relation to Syria are tied to the interaction of the United States and Iran. Then it is clear why the statement of the Iranian Foreign Ministry says that Tehran considers Al Nahyan’s visit to Damascus a “positive step”, whereas in August 2020 Iran criticised the normalisation of relations between the UAE and Israel, called it “strategic stupidity”.

Now let’s denote what is beyond doubt. For Assad, Russia remains the most influential and uncontested external force present in Syria. But in addition to Russia and the United States, such states as Turkey, Israel and Iran also protect their interests there. In addition, Russia continues to search for ways for constructive dialogue with Washington on Syria.

Recently, the Saudi newspaper Asharq Al-Awsa reported that “in the near future, a meeting is likely to take place between the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Vershinin and the special representative of the President of the Russian Federation for Syria Aleksandr Lavrentiyev with the coordinator of the Middle East policy of the White House National Security Council, Brett McGurk.

The newspaper emphasises that “possible negotiations are very worrying for Turkey, which demonstrates readiness for a military operation against the Kurds in Syria, and against whose interests these negotiations may be directed”. Moscow intends to rebalance the Arab, Iranian and Turkish presence in Syria, and Arab countries have begun to build bridges with it. It seems that they are preparing not only for changes in the geopolitical game on Syria, but also for some important changes in Turkey, which may well follow soon.

Institute for International Political and Economic Strategies – RUSSTRAT

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