Iran-Syria ties under spotlight amid UAE diplomatic outreach

November 12, 2021 - 21:24

TEHRAN – After long years of antagonism, some Arab states are trying out a new approach toward Syria in a bid to revive what came to be known as the Arab role in the war-torn country.

The United Arab Emirates and Jordan are leading the new Arab approach in tandem with others who, for now, prefer to wait and see if the UAE-led efforts would bear fruit.

On Tuesday, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed landed in the Syrian capital Damascus to meet Syrian President Bashar Assad, the most senior Emirati visit to the war-scarred country in a decade. 

The latest developments in the West Asia region and Syria, in addition to a number of regional and international issues of common interest featured high during the meeting, according to a statement by the UAE foreign ministry. “The two sides also reviewed the prospects of enhancing bilateral relations between the two sisterly nations,” the statement said, adding, “The Syrian president reciprocated the greetings and underlined the strong bonds between the two fraternal nations. He also commended the objective positions adopted by the UAE.”

After Damascus, the top Emirati diplomat immediately traveled to Jordan, where he met with Jordanian King Abdullah II, an indication that regional issues were on the agenda of Emirati-Jordanian talks. 

The Emirati foreign ministry’s statement on the meeting didn’t point to any regional issues being discussed by the two sides. It put the meeting in the broader context of the two countries' bilateral relations. 

But Shiekh Abdullah did discuss regional issues with his Jordanian counterpart Ayman Safadi. “The two ministers talked about several regional issues of mutual concern and highlighted the importance of continuing their related coordination and cooperation to overcome common challenges and achieve security and stability in the Arab region,” a separate UAE foreign ministry statement said.
Although Sheikh Abdullah did not point to any regional implications for his Syria visit, Saudi and Emirati media and commentators widely highlighted the visit as a counterbalance effort aimed at curtailing Iran's influence in Syria while rehabilitating the Syrian government.

The crux of their argument is that the UAE should return Syria to the Arab fold given the impossibility of regime change in Damascus. And such a return should come at the expense of Iran’s interests.

Sheikh Abdullah was in Damascus to achieve a number of “lofty goals,” Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, an influential Emirati academic who is believed to be close to Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed, said on Twitter. Contributing to the return of 10 million Syrian refugees, reducing the Iranian presence in Syria, working to end the Turkish occupation, organizing the Arab house, and increasing the Arab presence in Syria were among these goals, according to the Emirati academic.

Furthermore, the Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat claimed that it has seen a Jordanian-drafted document outlining a quid pro quo process under which Arab states would normalize ties with Syria in exchange for concessions from the war-torn country. 

The Arab Normalization Document lays out a step-by-step process that would begin with “reducing Iran’s influence in certain parts of Syria,” according to the Saudi newspaper.

Again, the normalization of ties between Syria and other Arab states is being seen through the prism of countering Iran. 

This is while Iran has already supported the so-called process of returning Syria to the Arab fold. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian has recently spoken over the phone with Sheikh Abdullah and Safadi as well as Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra. 

In his conversation with Lamamra, which took place after Sheikh Abdullah’s visit to Damascus, Amir Abdollahian expressed hope that the upcoming meeting of the Arab League will have important benefits for the Islamic ummah, according to the Iranian foreign ministry. 

The next summit of the Arab League in Algeria is widely expected to usher in Syria’s return to the organization which suspended Syria’s membership during the Syrian civil war. Therefore, Amir Abdollahian apparently hoped that the Algeria meeting would approve of Syria’s return to the Arab League. 
In addition, Iran has welcomed the improvement of relations between Damascus and other Arab capitals. But this Iranian openness seems to have fallen on deaf ears in Abu Dhabi.

Iran’s influence in Syria has never been directed against the UAE and its Arab allies. So, it’s difficult to see why the Emiratis make efforts to undermine Tehran’s interests in Syria. 

The UAE push could backfire against it as the Syrian government is unlikely to turn its back on those who helped it during times of crisis.  At the end of the day, the UAE was part of the group of countries that worked over the last decade to topple the Syrian government. That they failed to achieve a regime change in Damascus doesn’t mean that they became allies of Syria overnight. 


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