By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
The United Arab Emirates decided to re-open its embassy in Damascus on Thursday. This is another symbol that the Syrian regime is coming in from the cold in the region. It comes in the wake of a visit by Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir and also a visit by Syrian intelligence chief Ali Mamlouk to Cairo this week. The Arab League is also looking to re-admit Damascus after years of suspension.
The National in the UAE noted that the embassy opening was “the latest sign President Bashar al-Assad has emerged unscathed from a war in which more than 500,000 Syrians are estimated to have died.” Rumors circulated this week about news from Damascus of Arab countries sending more delegations to Syria.
The move is interpreted in the region as a major sign that Assad’s regime is once again on the road to acceptance after years of isolation Some have reacted with surprise, others with scorn. Soner Cagapta, Beyer Fellow & Director of the Turkish Program at The Washington Institute, writes: “Egypt, UAE, and Saudi Arabia, the triumvirate which opposes Ankara regionally, racing to Syria to help Assad fill in the vacuum from US withdrawal —before does Turkey.” The ‘Within Syria’ blog notes “If you think that the UAE embassy will reopen to “normalize” and to “give VISAs” you are dead wrong, there will be a lot of work going on there and that’s all what I can say now.”
The UAE’s Chargé d’affaires in Syria, Abdul Hakim Al Nuaimi , indicated that the embassy opening will be one step in the process of Arab states working together again. “This is the return of Syria among the Arab nations.” Other embassies would also be opened, he indicated, according to reports. The details are being reported in UAE and Saudi media.
In November 2011 the Arab League suspended Syria’s membership due to the suppression of Arab spring protests. Since then things have changed in the region. Many countries that saw the Arab spring unleash instability have now returned to suppressing dissent. In a sense some of them see Syria’s more totalitarian approach as the correct one. Even countries that initially opposed Assad’s crackdown have come to view the Syrian regime as the winner of the civil war and are quietly relieved that Syria did not sink into chaos like Libya, Yemen or other places.
In addition the religious extremist voices that exploited the instability since 2011 to gain influence have also lost out in many states. This includes ISIS and Al Qaeda, but also the Muslim Brotherhood. Syria, whose war against the rebels was seen as brutal, is now seen as a more “normal” state once again.
The US is withdrawing from eastern Syria. US President Donald Trump hammered that home on December 26 in Iraq. The UAE embassy move comes a day after that and is part of a slow shift in the region. Now one third of the country that was controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, appears ready to return to Damascus control. The SDF may be forced to sign a deal with the regime.
The UAE decision to reopen the embassy is part of this process. Saudi Arabia may follow next. Saudi Arabia told Trump it is open to investing in eastern Syria and has already spent $100 million there. Without a US presence it wants someone to guarantee its investment. It has cold relations with Turkey and Qatar, so the Syrian regime may be its natural choice now. But how will Riyadh and Abu Dhabi work with the Syrian regime if the regime remains closely allied to Iran. Could the embassy move be part of Iran’s presence being reduced. So far there is no hint of that. The embassy move is part of a process and it also indicates the Syrian civil war is largely over.