His Highness Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, (left) meeting with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in the capital Damascus.
Last week’s visit to Damascus by His Highness Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, was another important step on the Arab road to resuming relations with Syria and promoting a political solution to that country’s 12-year-old conflict. This was Sheikh Abdullah’s second meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and followed the Syrian’s visit to Abu Dhabi last March, his first to an Arab capital since conflict erupted in Syria in 2011.
During his UAE stay he was received by UAE President His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, who have championed regional interests and promoted regional unity and stability at a time of unprecedented global divisions over ties to China and the war in Ukraine.
Assad’s visit followed a March 2020 call with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed who offered Damascus humanitarian aid during the covid-19 pandemic. In October 2021, Syrian Economy and Trade Minister Mohammed Samer Al Khalil met with his Emirati counterpart Abdullah bin Touq al-Marri, at Dubai Expo 2020. The UAE and Algeria have also promoted an end to Syria’s suspension from the Arab League.
The UAE, Jordan, and Bahrain — which cut relations with Syria due to the government’s crackdown on 2011 protests — restored diplomatic relations. Egypt reopened its consulate in Damascus in 2013 while Oman, which never closed its mission, has returned an ambassador. Saudi Arabia has, reportedly, dispatched intelligence officials to meet their counterparts in Damascus while Syria’s Tourism Minister Mohammed Rami Martini attended a conference in Riyadh in March. He was the highest level Syrian official to visit the Saudi capital since unrest erupted in Syria.
Among Arab countries, Sudan, Lebanon, Algeria and Iraq have retained diplomatic relations while the Czech Republic, India, China, Iran, Russia, South Africa, and many other countries have done likewise. Hungary, Greece, and Cyprus have dispatched representatives to Damascus. The ambassador of the Czech Republic has represented US interests in Damascus since the US embassy closed.
The Trump and Biden administrations have issued repeated calls to Arab governments not to normalise relations with the Syrian government. Last week US State Department spokesman Ned Price said that the current administration does not support “upgrading their relations” or rehabilitating Assad.
Congress has exerted pressure on the administration to threaten sanctions under the Trump era Caesar Act which authorises penalties against governments, firms and individuals who do business with the Syrian government in construction, aviation, and energy. So far, the Biden administration has not invoked the Caesar Act but could come under pressure from pro-Israel Republican legislators to oblige.
Without Syria, Lebanon and Jordan have not prospered. The upheaval in Iraq caused by the US invasion and occupation has harmed the Gulf. While Iraq is not isolated and sanctioned as is Syria, UAE and Arab efforts to revive relations and reconstruct Syria, has become an existential issue for the Syrian people still living in that country. Millions are suffering from widespread poverty and lack of fuel, medicines, foodstuffs, building materials and foreign currency to access imports.
Non-Arab Turkiye has also begun the trek along the road to Damascus. In the run-up to June’s election. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called for a summit with his Syrian counterpart. Erdogan seeks to show Turkish voters that he is pursuing normalisation with Syria with the aim of repatriating a significant percentage of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees residing in Turkiye. While initially welcomed by Turks, the Syrians have become deeply unpopular and are unfairly blamed by many for inflation, unemployment, and other economic woes.
The Dec.28 meeting in Moscow of the Syrian and Turkish defence ministers appears to have put on hold Erdogan’s threat to mount a major offensive into northern Syria to drive Syrian Kurdish fighters from the border zone. Erdogan argues the next step in normalising relations would be a meeting between the two foreign ministers as a prelude to a summit with Assad.
Assad has, however, rejected such a meeting unless and until Turkiye withdraws its troops from occupied border enclaves, the northern district of Afrin, and the north-western province of Idlib which is ruled by al-Qaeda affiliate Hay ‘at Tahrir al-Sham. There have been unconfirmed Turkish media reports that Erdogan has agreed to pull out his troops and Syrian surrogate militias which control about five per cent of Syria.
Assad now administers about 70 per cent of Syria and all the country’s main cities. About 25 per cent of Syria is governed loosely by the US-backed Syrian Kurdish Protection Units (YPG) which, Erdogan charges, are allied to Turkiye’ s insurgent Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). The US deploys 900 troops in north-east and south-east Syria and occupies Syria’s oil fields. The solution for Syria is restoration of sovereignty over all its territory.
The economic situation in Syria has grown increasingly worse since major fighting stopped. Electricity, water, fuel are in short supply while the prices of bread, meat, poultry, and vegetables are soaring. The cause of this deterioration is US-driven Western sanctions which deny Syria the funds to import necessities as well as invest in reconstruction of infrastructure, the manufacturing sector, and housing. The restoration of trade and transit routes would provide income for this ancient country which, with Iraq, constitutes the Eastern Arab world’s hallowed heartland. Iraq was gutted by the 2003 US war and US sanctions, Syria by the 2011-2019 war and sanctions which are war by economic means and are condemned in international law as collective punishment because civilians are harmed.