The Syrian presidency said in a statement quoted by the official news agency SANA that the telephone conversation between President Assad and Abu Dhabi’s crown prince "focused on the consequences of the spread of the novel coronavirus (...).” The crown prince assured Assad of “UAE support of the Syrian people in these exceptional circumstances.”
On his Twitter account, the UAE leader confirmed the news, which was also relayed by the official news agency of the oil-rich Gulf state. “I discussed with the Syrian president (...) the latest developments related to Covid-19. I assured him of UAE support and willingness to help the Syrian people,” he wrote. “Humanitarian solidarity in difficult times outweighs all considerations, and Syria and its people won’t be alone.”
“It was the Russians who organized everything,” a diplomatic source close to the UAE told L’Orient-Le Jour. The United Arab Emirates had been seeking to reconnect with the Syrian regime for more than a year. “The Westerners, espe-cially the Americans and the French, were against (the move),” the source add-ed. Seven years after severing diplomatic relations, the UAE reopened its em-bassy in Damascus in December 2018. Syria was banned by the Arab world in late 2011, and Arab countries, including Gulf countries, recalled their ambas-sadors in protest against Damascus’ bloody repression of pro-democracy de-monstrators before some started supporting opposition factions in exile and armed rebels. “Here, MBZ took advantage of the situation created as a result of the coronavirus in the region and the world, and the contact (between Syrian and the UAE) was established, encouraged by Russia,” the source told OLJ.
Syria, ravaged by nine years of war, has so far reported a few coronavirus cas-es. Humanitarian organizations fear a “catastrophe” if the epidemic spreads.
The shift in UAE policy toward Assad’s regime dates back to 2018. UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash believed at the time that expelling Syria from the Arab League was a mistake. “It meant that we had no political leverage at all, no open channel. We couldn’t present an Arab vision on how the Syrian issue should be resolved,” he told the "The National" Emirati newspaper in June 2018.
Some observers now believe that the telephone conversation between the two leaders may pave the way for Syria to return to the Arab League. The UAE has good relations with the Arab countries, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and would try convince them of such a move.
Starting with the idea that the boycott of the Syrian regime been counterpro-ductive, and that it’s now necessary to get involved in Syria to offset the grow-ing power of Iran and Turkey there, several Arab countries, encouraged by Russia, have begun a shy rapprochement with Damascus.
According to the diplomatic source, the UAE leader is trying to win the favor of Moscow. “And he has already won dozens of armament, gas and infrastruc-ture contracts, and also some in space cooperation,” the source said.
Mohammed bin Zayed wants to get closer to the Russians and the Chinese, and take some distance from the Americans, believing that President Donald Trump is very unstable. This shift in UAE policy started with the sabotage of four ships off UAE coasts in May 2019, in the midst of a diplomatic escalation between Iran and the United States. In July of the same year, Abu Dhabi an-nounced the withdrawal of its combat troops from Yemen. Furthermore, the UAE relaxed its stance vis-à-vis Tehran, sending several delegations to Iran last year.
Thus, US military disengagement from the Middle East, initiated by Barack Obama and pursued by his successor, seems to have reshuffled the cards in this part of the world in perpetual conflict. Regional actors hope to have more reliable partners than the United States, and Russia is clearly trying to fill the gap.
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 30th of March)
Warming relations between the United Arab Emirates and Syria are hardly surprising. On March 27, a telephone conversation between Syrian President Bashar Assad and Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, took place for the first time since the Syrian conflict started in 2011. But the talks were only a logical continuation of a rapprochement between the UAE and Syria, which began...