Normalization between Damascus and the Gulf is not surprising
The Riyadh-Abu Dhabi-Cairo alliance has three main enemies: Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood and its Qatari backers and the Democratic Party in the United States.
The Syrian regime’s victory over rebel forces, thanks to Russian and Iranian intervention on its behalf, has changed the situation, forcing various actors involved in the conflict to reconsider their strategies. The Arab states are aware that their side in the war lost. Their aim was not to install a democratic regime in Syria, but to counter Iran’s influence. Now, it appears that they are ready to normalize relations with the Assad regime, which stands accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, in the name of realpolitik.
Eight years after the Arab spring began, this reality speaks volumes about the state of democracy and the respect for human rights in the Middle East. Compared to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, and the UAE’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed, the dictator in Damascus hardly stands out. “The kings and presidents of the Arab world may not be very fond of Assad, but it's not like they have a problem with him being a despot or killing his opponents – They do, too. And most of them would be just as brutal in a civil war situation,” Aron Lund, an expert at The Century Foundation, told L'Orient-Le Jour (OLJ).
The Riyadh-Abu Dhabi-Cairo alliance has three main enemies, although to varying extents: the Iranians, the Muslim Brotherhood and its Qatari backers and the Democratic Party in the United States (US). The regime in Damascus is not one of their main opponents. The rapprochement with Syria is part of a deeply anti-revolutionary agenda and sends a strong message to people across the Middle East: Any attempt to rebel against the existing powers will be brutally repressed.
In the end, whether the Assad regime stays in power is not important. What matters for the leaders of the Arab axis is checking Iran’s growing influence. Mohammad bin Salman conceded in a March interview with Time magazine that Assad will likely stay and expressed his hope that the Syrian president would not become a puppet for the Iranian regime.
Anwar Gargash, the UAE's minister of state for foreign affairs, justified the UAE reopening its embassy in Damascus by stating on Twitter: “In the face of Iran and Turkey’s regional expansionism, Arabs have an increasingly important role to play in Syria.”
From the beginning, Saudi Arabia and the UAE got involved in the Syria conflict out of their own interests. Riyadh and its Bahraini and Emirati allies were gravely concerned about the spread of the Arab revolutions before they decided to bet on the fall of the Syrian regime as a way to undermine Iran by removing its only regional ally. "The idea was that the fruit was ripe and that the Assad regime could easily fall,” said Karim Bitar, a research fellow at IRIS Institute in Paris and political science professor at the Saint Joseph University in Beirut.
The Arab axis decided to support the Syrian opposition for geopolitical and strategic reasons, not out of support for democracy. "At the time, Saudi Arabia had different considerations, including a fundamental reluctance vis-à-vis the Arab Spring as well as an anti-Qatari and anti-Muslim Brotherhood sentiment,” Thomas Pierret, a researcher at the CNRS in Paris, told OLJ.
Riyadh wanted to prevent Qatar from gaining influence in Syria while at the same time thwarting the Syrian-Iranian alliance by putting in place a Sunni ally. In order to achieve this, Saudi financially supported rebel groups with Salafist tendencies. This move helped contribute to the radicalization of the Syrian uprising, although to a lesser extent than Qatar and Turkey’s involvement.
The UAE, for its part, supported the rebellion in Syria, but gradually adopted a less aggressive stance towards Damascus. "The UAE kept on welcoming members of the Syrian regime who came to shelter their financial assets. A Syrian businessman once told me that he had to leave the UAE in 2013 because he was supporting a rebel group, while the Syrian money in bank accounts in Dubai are essentially pro-regime funds,” Pierret said. "The UAE has never shown any sincere support for a plan to overthrow Assad.”
It seems that when the opposition still had a chance of winning, Pierret continued, the UAE chose to support rebel groups loyal to the Emirati-Saudi axis as a counterweight to groups aligned with Turkey and Qatar.
Riyadh had to face two major crises: the war in Yemen against the Iran-backed Houthis starting March 2015, then Qatar’s blockade in June 2017.
The Russian intervention in September 2015 changed the situation on the ground in favor of the Syrian regime. It has also led to a gradual change in perception by the Gulf countries, which have good relations with Moscow and now look to Russia to halt Iranian expansion. "The Sunni Arab Gulf countries will justify the rapprochement with Assad by saying that the Syrian regime has become so dependent on Russia that they are not really restoring relations with Assad's Syria, but rather that they are opening a new chapter with Putin's Syria,” Bitar of IRIS concluded.
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour the 8th of January 2019)