Does Syria’s Road Back to the Arab Family Go Through the UAE?

23 Jan 2023

Does Syria’s Road Back to the Arab Family Go Through the UAE?

By Alexey Khlebnikov and Igor Matveev

January 23, 2023


Reconciliating Damascus with the Arab family remains among the key most challenging issues on the regional agenda. It is acquiring even greater importance due to the ongoing reapproachment efforts between Damascus and the Arab Gulf states pioneered by the UAE. Since 2018, Bahrain and the UAE have restored diplomatic relations with the Syrian Arab Republic despite years of animosity and criticism coming from the West. A series of high-level visits took place over the last years, and a number of economic agreements have been signed between Damascus and its regional peers which proves evolution of their policies towards Syria.

The normalization of Assad’s Syria with the Arab family is still a rather limited and slow process, where GCC states are all differently involved. Although the rapprochement has already started and seems irreversible, it remains highly vulnerable to a number of limiting factors, e.g. harsh outer environment, multiple regional competitions, and the intra-Arab contradictions.

First, the idea of détente with Damascus meets increasingly hostile attitude in the West. The United States is opposed to any normalization with the Syrian government, especially due to the fact that it coincides with Moscow’s current efforts to mediate Türkiye-Syria rapprochement. On January 3, Ned Price, the U.S. State Department’s spokesperson explicitly commented on Dec. 28 trilateral talks in Moscow saying: “We’ve made very clear to all of our allies and partners that now is not the time to normalize relations, now is not the time to upgrade relations [with Syria].” The EU, for its part, seems to have no intention to support a normalization with Damascus as well. In addition, Western sanctions on Syria, especially the U.S. Caesar Act and CAATSA, put serious caps on many countries willing to restore relations with Syria. Therefore, the U.S. policy towards Syria and its Arab allies will play an important role in the success or failure of the Syrian détente.

Second, the official Damascus has been facing sanctions adopted by the Arab League since November 2011, including suspension of Syria’s membership in this organization. Although several countries, e.g. Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Oman, the UAE and Tunisia, are currently proposing to re-evaluate Syria’s suspension in the Arab League, there is still no unity on this matter. It is yet another indication of existing differences, if not rivalry, among the Arab states. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are still hesitant to follow the UAE launching their détente with Damascus.

To cut a long story short, there is a clear willingness for reconciliation expressed by Moscow, Abu Dhabi, and Damascus, as well as established dialogues between their respective leaders. Those ongoing negotiation tracks could contribute to overcoming the bureaucratic inertia and promoting reconciliation between Syria and the UAE. While the UAE’s leadership currently appears hesitant to establish trilateral formats of cooperation with Russia and Syria, this may change in the future in light of the influence exerted by Iran and Turkey.

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