The United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy in Damascus on Thursday for the first time in seven years in a move intended to counter Iranian and Turkish influence in Syria.
The decision by the UAE, which closed its diplomatic mission in 2011 as an uprising erupted against Bashar al-Assad, is a boost to the Syrian president. It underlines how Arab states that sought to isolate Damascus are cautiously considering normalising relations with the regime as Syria’s seven-year civil war has tilted in Mr Assad’s favour.
“The Arab role in Syria has become more necessary in light of the regional, Turkish and Iranian, presence,” Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, said on Twitter. “The UAE today seeks, through its presence in Damascus, to activate this role and ensure that the Arab options are present and to have an active participation in ending the war.”
Syria was suspended from the Arab League in November 2011 as government forces brutally cracked down on protesters and the uprising morphed into a civil war. The UAE joined other Gulf states in supporting the Syrian opposition, but was less active than Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Turkey has been a major backer of Syrian rebel groups and has sent troops into the country to fight Isis and push back against Kurdish militias.
But it has been on the opposing side of a regional power struggle with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The two Gulf states accuse Ankara of supporting political Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which they deem as a threat to regional stability.
Turkey has also been co-operating with Russia and Iran on talks between the Assad regime and opposition groups as Arab and western powers have become increasingly marginalised in Syria.
Mr Assad has re-asserted control over much of the country with the backing of Russian and Iranian troops.
“When it comes to recognition of Assad, I think every Arab capital has now regrettably come to the conclusion that resistance to the regime isn’t going to result in his immediate downfall,” said HA Hellyer, a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council think-tank. “He is going to stay, so they might as well get on with it and deal with him.”
The main concern of the UAE and Saudi Arabia has shifted to countering the regional influence of Iran, which they accuse of fuelling conflicts and stoking extremism.
Mr Hellyer said that the Iranian presence in Syria was a concern for most Gulf states. But he added: “I don’t think the Assad regime is going to recognise any Gulf power as being a substitute for Iran, especially given how much effort Tehran has put into the Assad regime. But that’s the calculation.”
US lawmakers have lambasted President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision this month to withdraw the estimated 2,000 American soldiers fighting Isis in Syria, arguing that it would empower Iran. Mr Trump has asked Ankara to take over the US troops’ role in the battle against the extremists, which would deepen Turkey’s involvement in Syria.
The UAE, which has in recent years been pursuing an increasingly assertive foreign policy, has for some time been hinting that it would shift its stance towards the Assad regime.
Mr Gargash told The National, an Abu Dhabi-based newspaper, in June that it was a “mistake to kick Syria out of the Arab League”.
“It meant we had no political leverage at all, no open channel, we could not present an Arab prism to how the Syrian issue should be resolved,” he said.
Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir this month became the first Arab head of state to visit Damascus since the start of the Syrian conflict. In October, Jordan reopened an important border post with Syria. Amman is desperate to revive vital trade routes through its neighbour as it grapples with a struggling economy.
Jordan and Lebanon are also keen for Syrians to start returning as they complain about the economic burden of hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees.
Additional reporting by Asser Khattab in Beirut
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