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01/18/2023

Will the UAE succeed in leading the normalization train between Ankara and Damascus to the arrival station?

Will the UAE succeed in leading the normalization train between Ankara and Damascus to the arrival station?

It seems that difficult mediation roles are becoming attractive to the Gulf countries.

Two months ago, Qatar succeeded in resolving the stalemate in relations between Türkiye and Egypt by arranging the impossible handshake between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his counterpart Abdel Fattah El-Sisi prior to the opening of the World Cup finals held on its soil. This constituted a step whose results could appear in the coming months in resetting relations between the two countries.

Challenging mediation roles

Now, the UAE is on its way to achieving a more difficult normalization between Ankara and Damascus, which, if it takes place, will be a win-win for all parties, especially Abu Dhabi.

Steps to achieve this normalization were accelerated by the visit of the UAE Foreign Minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, to Damascus a few days ago, despite the difficulties facing the normalization of Arab relations with Syria, let alone with Türkiye.

The value of the visit will be reinforced by the upcoming meeting of the foreign ministers of Syria, Türkiye and Russia in preparation for holding a summit that brings together the leaders of the 3 countries, most likely to be in Abu Dhabi.

Amidst these normalization efforts, there is another track of understandings between Ankara and Washington on the Syrian situation. The Turkish Foreign Minister is expected to visit Washington within days to brief US officials on the developments of normalization with Damascus and the arrangements sponsored by Russia in northeastern Syria, where US forces are deployed.

Analysts believe that Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed’s visit to Damascus came after official US statements opposing normalization with Assad. In their view, the UAE is making every effort, taking advantage of its relations with Russia, Türkiye and Damascus, to prevent the Americans from stopping the train of normalization.

What does the Arab media say?

The visit of the UAE foreign minister to Damascus received the attention of Arab media, which dealt with the Emirati role in this regard, as well as the possibilities of normalization between Ankara and Damascus.

According to the website Arabi 21, funded by Qatar that opposes normalization with the Assad regime and supports the forces opposing it, the UAE is trying to play a regional and international role, regardless of whether this role is positive or negative.

Arabi 21 indicated that Abu Dhabi provides the Arab dimension, politically and financially, which is needed by Turkish efforts to open a dialogue with Damascus in light of declared American opposition and Saudi and Qatari disapproval.

The site indicated that the UAE could provide funding for some projects to return refugees to northern Syria, or areas controlled by the regime and need rehabilitation.

Arabi 21 indicated that Abu Dhabi could be satisfied with Türkiye obtaining a greater role in Syria at the expense of Iran, which is possible after reconciliation between Ankara and Damascus.

Arabian Business newspaper said that Qatar, Iran and the Syrian opposition are among the losers from the Turkish-Syrian rapprochement. But it also expected that this rapprochement would lead to the resumption of land trade from Türkiye to the Arab Gulf states.

In an article published in Al-Ittihad, an UAE newspaper, Abdullah Al-Sayed Al-Hashemi explained that the UAE’s role in converging views between Türkiye and Syria comes within Abu Dhabi’s strategy, which is based on Damascus’ need to return to its Arab and international relations in order to achieve stability in Syria, in a way that helps the Syrian people who are suffering from exceptional circumstances.

In Al-Shorouk, an Egyptian newspaper, Rakha Ahmed Hassan, a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs and of the Egyptian Association for the United Nations, said that the path of normalization between Ankara and Damascus will not be greatly affected by American opposition, as Türkiye realizes the extent to which Washington and European countries need its mediating role in the Ukrainian crisis as a member of NATO and an accepted party for Russia and Ukraine.

Hassan indicated that Ankara’s position will not be greatly affected by what the Syrian opposition sees, as starting work to return Syrian refugees in Türkiye to their homeland serves the Turkish regime in the battle for the Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections on June 23, 2023.

The Egyptian diplomat explained that the success of the Turkish-Syrian normalization path depends to a large extent on the desire of both parties to pursue it and to show seriousness and continuity in the steps they take.

In Rai Al-Youm newspaper, published in London, Kamal Khalaf said the path of normalization between the two countries needed hard work, discussion of details and overcoming difficulties.

Khalaf expressed his hope that the review of Turkish policies in normalizing relations with Damascus would be a strategic decision and not within the framework of interim electoral tactics.

In the same newspaper, Wael Al-Amin said that the UAE might be the country benefiting most from the Syrian-Turkish rapprochement, which is expected to open the Turkish-Gulf trade route through Syria.

He considered that the UAE is worthy of this mission, as it is close to all Arab countries on the one hand, and strengthens its relations with Syria on the other hand.

The Lebanese Markazia website indicated that the UAE’s flexibility towards Syria and its regime is not new, explaining that the recent meetings would not have taken place without Saudi approval.

It pointed out that Russia is working to impose a truce between Damascus and Ankara, which will lead in a next stage to cooperation and coordination to enhance stability in the northern Syrian region.

“The first purpose of this mediation is security. According our sources, Abu Dhabi is helping Moscow in this endeavor, as it enjoys a good relationship with the two parties”, it added.

The Lebanese website quoted its sources that normalization is still a long way off and is linked to a series of steps that Assad must take, proving his distance from the Iranian axis in the region.

What does the UAE really want?

Over the past few years, the UAE has strengthened its relations with Russia at all levels, ended the tension in its relations with Ankara, and restored its relations with Damascus, in an attempt to reset its geopolitical compass.

Since restoring its relationship with Damascus, the UAE has made shuttle efforts to strengthen its relations with Russia, the main, if not the most important player in Syria. It is now engaging in a clear and explicit role to normalize relations between Damascus and Ankara. The UAE’s primary goal in all of this is to achieve stability in Syria, which cannot happen without these two major players.

Syria is a country devastated by civil war for more than 10 years, and it represents an important opportunity for the UAE, which has large financial surpluses, which it can use to win a large share of the reconstruction contracts that this country will need.

It was not surprising that the UAE proposed more than once to contribute to the financing of energy and economic projects in Syria, as permitted by US sanctions and the Caesar Act.

On the other hand, the UAE, which is an important player globally in the field of ports management, plans to find alternatives to traditional shipping routes in the region. It shares this goal with Russia and Israel. Also, its ambitions and plans cannot be achieved without Russia and Türkiye.

During his visit to Türkiye in 2021, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, then crown prince of Abu Dhabi, discussed with President Erdogan a transportation route that starts from the emirate of Sharjah on the Arab Gulf, passes through Iranian ports and lands, and then travels by land to Mersin, which is located on the Mediterranean coast and close to the European coasts.

This route reduces the transportation period between 6 and 8 days instead of the current 20 days, the transportation process takes via the current route that starts from the port of Sharjah – Bab al-Mandab Strait – Suez Canal – Mersin.

There are two other projects that the Gulf state is currently working on. The first is a huge project that it is implementing in cooperation with Israel, Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline, through which Emirati oil will be transported to Israel and then to Europe, via a line extending from port of Eilat on the Red Sea coast to the port of Ashdod on the Mediterranean.

The third project is being done in cooperation between the UAE and Russia, which was revealed by officials from the two countries in mid-July, following the signing of an agreement between DP World and Moscow to develop a container shipping line across the North Pole in a route promoted by Moscow as an alternative to the Suez Canal.

Intertwined interests

These intertwined interests between the UAE, Russia and Türkiye naturally led to a great desire among them to agree to end the state of tension and war in Syria by accelerating normalization with the Assad regime, as each of them can achieve its goals:

– Russia desires a complete end to the Syrian state of war, so that it can recover what it invested in supporting Assad regime, whether in terms of reconstruction contracts or exploiting the Syrian position militarily and geopolitically.

– Türkiye hopes to establish security and stability in this neighboring country, in order to get rid of the burden of the Syrian refugee problem within it, secure its borders against the Kurdish forces there, and win part of the reconstruction projects cake.

– UAE seeks to accelerate the reconstruction of Syria, hoping to neutralize part of the Iranian influence inside that Arab country through economic projects and strong political relations.

An important geopolitical influence card

At the same time, the Syrian issue, in Abu Dhabi’s view, is the most important card in light of the crises and conflicts of the Arab world, through which it can impose its word in the framework of the competition for geopolitical influence between it and its neighbors Gulf states.

The political repositioning that Abu Dhabi carried out helped it win the confidence of the actors in the Syrian issue.

If Bloomberg’s report about a deal between Russia, Türkiye and UAE on settling the situation in Syria and recognizing the legitimacy of its current president is correct, then this has no meaning other than that we are waiting the final touches to that, which was completely unlikely in light of the position Ankara concerning the Assad regime.

According to the agency, the Turkish authorities, who supported Assad’s opponents in 2011, are ready to recognize the Syrian president as the legitimate head of state and to establish diplomatic and commercial relations with Syria. On the other hand, the Turkish side calls on the Damascus authorities to prevent the US-backed Kurdish forces from establishing an autonomous region in the north of Syria on the border with Türkiye.

If this is accomplished, UAE and all players in that crisis will have achieved their goals, despite any American objections.

This is fully consistent with the independence with which the UAE plays its political and economic cards. This method is consistent with the one used by Moscow and Ankara in the face of Western pressures in general, and US pressures in particular.

Political realism

The success of the Assad regime in surviving despite the continuation of the civil war in Syria all these years and despite all the external interference, has convinced everyone to adopt political realism as an approach in dealing with this issue, especially since everyone is now dealing with the Syrian government from a de facto perspective after it was able to withstand for so long The past 12 years, and all efforts made throughout that period failed to reach an equation that guarantees security and stability in the country after the failure of regime change plans.

UAE has adopted this realistic approach in its new policies with all the opponents of the past, in order to achieve its interests and to support its political power regionally and internationally.

Of course, it is aware of the difficulty of achieving in the Syrian issue for many reasons, and yet it is making steps forward.

The most important difficulties facing this path are expected to be on the part of Iran and the United States. Despite the contradiction in the positions between the two countries, they view with suspicion this positive development in relations between Türkiye and Syria and the enlargement of the Russian political role, especially with the return of the US strictness towards Syria by imposing more sanctions on Syrian personalities and entities and obstructing any normalization between Damascus and the Arab countries, the latest of which was the negative comment of the US State Department on the visit of the UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs, and it came to obstruct some Arab projects such as restarting the Arab gas pipeline.

Although its aim was to provide energy to Lebanon, it will necessarily pass-through Syria and link the electricity companies between Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, despite its welcome at the beginning as an opponent of Iranian influence in Syria. The change of position is a part of the aftershocks of the war in Ukraine and the US desire of besieging any diplomatic or political role for Russia.

Meanwhile Iran wants to tighten the siege on the Kurds, which it accuses of being responsible for the outbreak of protests in Iranian cities. At the same time, in any case, it fears that Syria will witness any developments that it is not a part of. Tehran is also trying to change the demographics and settle the Iranians in certain areas, and presents unacceptable demands to the Syrian government, as it is the one that has the greatest credit for the Syrian regime’s ability to continue and survive.

Because of all these intertwined interests and contradictory positions, the train of normalization between Ankara and Damascus started from the departure station, but it will not reach its arrival station without difficult and painful understandings between all regional and international players. I think UAE will play an important role in facilitating this.

Islam Farag
Islam Farag is an Egyptian journalist, analyst and researcher. He is an expert on Middle East affairs and has contributed dozens of press kits on regional affairs and issues. He participated in many research projects within Egyptian governmental and non-governmental institutions. He has worked in many Egyptian and Arab press institutions as a journalist and analyst. He is interested in issues of the historic relationship of the Arab world with regional and world powers. Also he is interested in power conflicts in the middle east.

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