Last year, at the sixty-first session of the Damascus International Fair, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) reconnected with Syria after both states had suspended diplomatic relations in 2012. A pavilion was allocated to Emirati businesses, which were accompanied at the fair by the chairman of the Sharjah Chamber of Commerce and Industry and vice president of the Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry in the UAE, Abdullah Sultan al-‘Owais.
The UAE’s engagement with Syria began behind the scenes and was framed as an economic partnership. The Damascus fair presented an opportunity for businesses to play the role of intermediaries. Because of the destruction in Syria, the country is in need of partners willing to implement reconstruction projects worth billions of dollars.
However, relations soon took on a new turn. In late March of this year, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, spoke by telephone to President Bashar al-Assad to discuss the challenges that Syria is facing to curb the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. The call ended with Mohammed bin Zayed’s assertion that “Syria would not remain alone in these critical circumstances.”
The relations between the Syrian regime and the UAE have had implications for ties between Russia and Syria, as well as for Russia’s exchanges with Turkey in Syria. At first, Russia appeared to welcome the UAE as a new regional partner. In February, the director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, Sergei Naryshkin, met with Emirati officials to discuss challenges and opportunities in the field of counterterrorism. Yet Moscow was not happy with the UAE’s efforts later to undermine a Russian-Turkish agreement over Idlib, concluded in March. However, everything suggests that Moscow will opt for a pragmatic attitude toward the UAE. Both countries, for instance, are supporting the forces of Khalifa Haftar in Libya, against the Government of National Accord supported by Turkey. In 2017, the UAE also partnered with Russia’s defense giant, Rostec, to develop fifth-generation light combat fighter aircraft. Moreover, Russia and the UAE have been working on strengthening their economic relations in the past six years, with non-oil trade between the two states reaching $15 billion. Therefore, the Russian approach may well be one of seeking to benefit from the UAE’s assistance to the Assad regime, while also ensuring that improved UAE-Syrian relations will in no way erode Russia’s leverage in Syria.
Russian media seemed to reflect this dual approach. Russian news agencies published reports predicting a possible UAE-Syrian alliance and claimed that the Emiratis would pursue new policies in the region and take an independent path from their Saudi ally. Russian analysts have discussed the UAE’s impact on Russia’s regional partnerships. Some have even suggested that Russia would be better off pursuing an Arab track and welcome the UAE as a new partner in place of Turkey, given that Russia and Turkey have disagreed over Turkish military operations in Idlib.
The dynamics in Idlib have provided a context for the UAE’s rising influence over developments in Syria. Last March, Russia and Turkey reached an agreement to cease military operations in Idlib after the displacement of nearly 1 million people from the area. However, as soon as hostilities subsided the Syrian regime began to bomb areas of Idlib. Turkey’s response did not take long and Turkish forces established a military post at the Nabi Ayoub hill in mid-May.
The Syrian regime’s operations effectively undermined Russia’s promises to halt the fighting in Idlib as part of its agreement with Turkey. They also embarrassed Russian President Vladimir Putin. To make matters worse, several Russian outlets circulated news that Assad had resumed bombing Idlib with the UAE’s encouragement. These outlets cited a report by Middle East Eye, which is widely seen as reflecting a Qatari point of view, claiming that Mohammed bin Zayed had persuaded Assad of the need to recover the lands under Turkish control. The report claimed that the UAE had offered financial inducements to Assad so that he would pursue military operations in northern Syria. Because Qatar is strongly opposed to the Syrian regime and the UAE, such reports have to be taken with caution, as have Russian reports citing them. However, it does indeed appear that the Assad regime sought to escalate tensions in Idlib in order to undermine the Russian-Turkish agreement.
Some have interpreted Assad’s rapprochement with the UAE as an attempt to break out of his regional isolation and find a new ally that could bankroll an effort to bring all of Syria under his control. This comes at a time when Russia, the regime’s longstanding partner, has become more flexible in its discussion of the Syrian situation and seems ready to contemplate a political settlement with opposition forces to end the war. This is different that Assad’s vision.
To dissuade the Syrian president from following through with his plans for Idlib, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu flew to Damascus on March 23 and conveyed a message to Assad that Moscow would not accept any breach of its agreement with Turkey. But the Syrian regime’s behavior indicates that it does not mind pushing the boundaries as far as they can go.
Some have interpreted Assad’s actions as acts of rebellion against Moscow. In fact, in mid-April Russian news agencies published articles claiming that the Syrian president would not be able to win the 2021 presidential election due to public resentment of the regime’s corruption and mismanagement of the economy. In one article, several candidates were proposed as potential replacements for Assad, including Prime Minister ‘Imad Khamis, Brigadier General Suheil al-Hassan, and Ahmad al-Jarba, a Syrian opposition leader who has contacts with many parties in Syria and, most importantly, enjoys good relations with Russia.
The fact that Moscow reportedly warned Assad against undermining the Idlib deal with Turkey suggests that Putin is keen to maintain good relations with Ankara. However, if there are advantages in developing ties with the UAE that provide Russia with valuable cards in the region, there appears to be no compelling reason for Putin to enter into a confrontation with the Emiratis over the Idlib agreement. For instance, Putin can take advantage of UAE funding to Assad’s forces to limit Turkish encroachments in northern Syria, given that Russia itself is facing an economic shock following the decline in oil prices and the financial losses resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic.
By playing the UAE and Turkey off against each other, Russia may accumulate power while remaining on good terms with both. In this way Putin can maneuver his country into a position in which it continues to play a central role in Syria, gaining from all sides.
However, such an approach involves an essential factor. Putin must ensure that any relationship that Assad builds with the UAE, like Syria’s ties with Iran, does not marginalize Russia. In the hardnosed game of power, no one is an enemy unless, or until, he seeks to reduce your power. As one Russian observer put it, Moscow will always try “not to incur a strategic defeat while chasing tactical gains.”