In international relations, there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests. As British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston reminded the House of Commons in 1848, “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.
The catastrophic earthquakes that hit southeastern Turkey and northern Syria on February 6 killed more than 50,000 people, including 6,000 in Syria, where the United Nations estimates that 5.3 million people are now in need of basic shelter in that already afflicted country. Despite the disastrous nature of the earthquakes, there may be a silver lining if the outpouring of humanitarian aid to Syria helps realign and reinforce the tectonic plates of permanent Arab interests: That is, consolidating the strength of the Arab community and weakening Iran’s influence in the region, by welcoming the return of Syria to its Arab surroundings and support.
The United Arab Emirates is leading the regional push toward full normalization with the Syrian state as well as humanitarian aid. Having pledged more than $100 million to Syria, the largest amount from any single country in the world, the UAE continues its non-stop delivery of aid to Syria that has already totaled 4,925 tons of food, medicine, and medical supplies. The UAE has also sent a search and rescue team to help locate survivors; provided the Syrian Civil Defense (SCD) with search and rescue equipment; and donated 10 ambulances equipped with the latest technical equipment and the ability to travel off-road into rugged terrain in Syria’s remote areas.
News reports also noted a significant and direct contribution of the UAE in allowing international humanitarian groups to distribute aid to the people of Syria. According to many sources, a day before United Nations aid chief Martin Griffiths was due to visit Damascus on February 13, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan raised the issue of humanitarian aid crossing the Turkish border into Syria with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Immediately after that, the United Nations announced Assad’s decision, hours after Griffiths met with the president in Damascus, to allow aid to cross directly, which Damascus had refused and insisted that it be through it previously, and this is an indication of the depth of the relationship, respect, and mutual trust.
The Emirati mission is aptly named Operation Gallant Knight 2. Indeed, since many Syrians now view the UAE as a knight in shining armor. Large numbers of Syrians, especially young people (which is the majority of a country whose median age is 25.6 years), have come to settle in the UAE since its doors were opened for them, and many of them have impressive success stories. There are thousands more like them in Syria, and both groups are jointly the most important guarantee that investing in their country and in them will lead to success.
On the other hand, the educated Syrian youth know that the meager assistance provided by Iran and Hezbollah to their country is nothing more than a propaganda campaign and does not reach the level of the humanitarian initiative that the exaggerated Iranian reports speak of. This aid reached only one governorate.
The UAE recognizes its significant position in Syria and among Syrians, and understands the need for Syria to rejoin its Arab neighbors. Regional players are increasingly taking a productive approach to dealing with Damascus, rather than a punitive one, recognizing that inter-Arab issues cannot be resolved by third parties. To overcome the challenges facing the region, Arab solidarity is crucial. Unfortunately, the absence of Arab involvement in the Syrian conflict has allowed foreign powers, often with malign intentions, to gain a foothold in the country. Rather than working to solve problems in the Arab world, these powers have exacerbated them.
The West needs to accept that Syria’s reintegration is only a matter of time, especially given its geographic centrality to the entire region. Although America could postpone it, it would be expensive. Besides, the Biden foreign policy team appears to be more focused on the Indo-Pacific rather than the Middle East. The West should heed the advice of UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir O. Pedersen and concentrate more on facilitating the Syrian-led political process facilitated by the United Nations.
“Syrians of all backgrounds tell me that the current situation is unacceptable and also unsustainable,” he told the UN Security Council in December 2022. “And I do sense a growing realization in all quarters that allowing the status quo to continue and the situation to deteriorate is simply not an option. We must give Syrians hope for the future.
Conversely, the United States could delegate this task to the UAE, which has demonstrated a strong willingness and preparedness to undertake it. The UAE has already taken positive steps towards bridging the gap with Syria, with or without an American green light. This is an opportune moment for action, for several reasons. Firstly, the United States has partially lifted its sanctions on Syria through the Caesar Act for a six-month period, which presents an opportunity for the UAE to benefit. Secondly, the US role in the region is relatively declining, while regional powers like the UAE are becoming increasingly independent, affording them a broader range of possibilities.
Recently, the weakening of American involvement in the region and the growing independence of Arab nations were evidenced by the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement and their agreement under Chinese mediation. This agreement between two nations on opposite sides of conflicts, particularly in Yemen and Syria, may be either long-lasting or fleeting as a summer cloud. The latter is expected given that Iran is unlikely to abandon its interests, connections, and influence in several countries in the region. Therefore, Iran will try to maximize its gains from the agreement before abandoning it and returning to its previous tactics of trying to control various Arab countries.
Arab independence was underscored by Assad’s recent visit to the Emirates. Following his trip to Moscow on March 14th, Assad arrived in the UAE on March 19th, accompanied by his wife Asma, who is said to be in support of reducing Damascus’ dependency on Iranian support. They were warmly received by UAE President His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, according to WAM, the Emirates official news agency.
After meeting with Assad, the UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed tweeted: “We held constructive talks aimed at developing relations between our two countries. Our discussions also explored ways of enhancing cooperation to accelerate stability and progress in Syria and the region.”
Al-Assad’s visit holds significant political importance not only in the Arab region but also throughout the wider Middle East. The UAE is now in a unique position to play a large, balanced, and long-term role by capitalizing on its strong relationship with Syria and forging an alliance that benefits both parties. While the current balance may appear to favor the UAE, its leaders must recognize the geopolitical significance of Syria in the region. The support and aid the UAE is currently providing can pave the way for developmental and economic cooperation that will ultimately dovetail with political discussions.
Regional and international powers continue to vie for influence, either through hostility towards the Damascus government (United States and Turkey) or by forming alliances with it (Russia and Iran). None of these countries, however, can match the UAE’s popularity, regional acceptance, and international friendships across various axes and parties. Nevertheless, any Emirati efforts to reintegrate Syria into the Arab world must be part of a long-term plan rather than an attempt to pressure Damascus to immediately sever ties with Tehran.
Breaking the alliance between Tehran and Damascus may seem utopian and unrealistic to some, but with the recent concessions made by Iran as a result of its agreement with Saudi Arabia, there may be room for change. Moreover, the UAE can offer many advantages that Tehran cannot provide, including economic and diplomatic benefits both regionally and globally.
Abu Dhabi is known for its soft policy and ability to build friendships across all barriers. In the wake of the diminishing role of the United States, the UAE is enhancing its standing and expanding its strategic balance in the region. Integrating Syria into this balance would be a significant and valuable addition.
Any advancement in UAE-Syria relations will undoubtedly serve the interests of both countries. If the UAE can include Syria in the Abraham Accords, it will achieve what no peace mediator could—not even former President Bill Clinton. Regardless, its close relations with Syria will largely guarantee stability and calm in the region.
This is one of the many strategic reasons that make closer relations between the UAE and Syria a necessity rather than a diplomatic luxury. Others include luring Syria away from Iran and paving the way for mediated Syrian-Israeli peace talks. The UAE, like other Arab League members, can also take advantage of the economic opportunities presented by the reconstruction of Syria.
For Damascus, a successful détente with the UAE would help end its Arab isolation by ultimately restoring its membership in the Arab League and reintegrating it into the Arab family. Abu Dhabi also acts as a go-between for Damascus with other Gulf Cooperation Council states and the West. It is also worth noting here that the Syrian government views the UAE as a potential counterweight to excessive Iranian influence in Syria.
Of course, this path is not easy, straightforward, or without risks. Rather, it is a long-term geopolitical game filled with potential pitfalls, and the UAE leadership is fully cognizant of this fact. However, it also believes that the benefits of achieving long-term gains outweigh the short-term geopolitical risks. Furthermore, not all of these goals or motives may be present from the outset. Achieving détente with Damascus may be an end in and of itself by confirming the UAE’s heightened leadership role as well as its ability to accomplish what others may not have been able or willing to do.
The lack of clarity from Washington and Europe regarding the Emirati-Syrian rapprochement only adds to the suffering of the Syrian people. It is imperative that a green light is given, whether overtly or covertly, and that President Biden trusts Abu Dhabi and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a highly respected figure known as Al-Hakim (The Wise) who enjoys the support of most Arab decision-makers. It is essential to empower Sheikh Mohammed to find solutions to the Syrian crisis.
Sheikh Mohammed’s conversation with Assad was marked by simplicity and depth, and Assad responded with gratitude and deep political implications. It was evident that the Syrian president was eager to prove to the Western world that its perception of him was not entirely accurate and that he was willing to re-engage in the world order. The video of their meeting has been widely circulated, particularly among Syrians, and I am almost certain that every Syrian, whether in the country or in the diaspora, watched it and was filled with a sense of hope. After believing that the whole world was against them, this gesture meant a great deal to the Syrian people.
All parties interested in promoting security, stability, understanding, and openness in the region must support the UAE’s efforts to build strong relations with Syria and help it rebuild its Arab relationships. This would involve Emirati mediation in the negotiations between the Damascus government and its opponents in a rational and objective manner. Fortunately, the UAE has strong diplomatic ties with other regional powers, including Qatar, Turkey, Iran, and, most importantly, the most important regional state Saudi Arabia, as well as Russia and China.
Although important but often ignored, if the UAE receives support from Washington and the West in building strong relations with Syria, it could potentially lead to peace talks between Damascus and Tel Aviv. Israel is aware of the importance of peace with Syria, as it seeks to prevent further Iranian expansion in Syria and the threat it poses.
On the other hand, Syria wants to regain control of the occupied Golan Heights. This is difficult now, but Israel can negotiate until Damascus is satisfied. Thus, there are interests that could be negotiated, and a formula of understanding could be reached similar to what Egypt and Jordan have done in the past, in addition to, economic ones with the great powers, to help Damascus rise again, and most importantly, its independence.
The West would be wise to support Syria’s return to its Arab brethren and consider it a first step towards normalizing Western relations with Damascus. Without reassurances from Washington and the West that it will open its doors and coffers to help in Syria’s reconstruction, Assad cannot afford to cut all ties with Russia and Iran.
For a long time—perhaps too long—the United States and the West have used human rights as a reason to impose political and economic sanctions against Syria. They must know, however, that the Syrian people who have no power in the political process suffer the most from these sanctions, dying from hunger, cold, and disease. The number of deaths from these indirect consequences far exceeds the number of deaths from battles. The Emirati initiative now offers the West an opportunity to extend a helping hand and get off this tree of sanctions, and it would be wrong for them not to take this opportunity.
We are currently witnessing a historic moment that presents a significant opportunity for real political changes in the region. The growing alliance between Syria and its Arab neighbors can be a strong and stabilizing factor in in the region, both politically and economically.
To succeed, both the Emirates and Syria must be encouraged to further strengthen their relations by Washington and Western leaders to seize this opportunity. If Syria represents the region’s past and the UAE its present, fostering strong relations between the two countries can significantly impact the region’s future in a positive and optimal way.