The United Arab Emirates has officially expressed its hope that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wins his country’s civil war, further cementing a gradual shift by Abu Dhabi and other regional powers back to Damascus after initially supporting efforts to oust the Syrian leader.
Speaking Monday at a ceremony marking the UAE’s National Day in the Syrian capital of Damascus, Abu Dhabi’s charge d’affaires to the embattled nation Abdul-Hakim Naimi described ties between the two nations as “durable, special and powerful.” Though Syria remains suspended from the Arab League due to allegations of the government committing war crimes to suppress a 2011 rebel and jihadi uprising backed by the U.S. and a number of its regional partners—including the UAE, Abu Dhabi restored relations with Damascus last year as Assad emerged largely victorious.
“I hope that safety, security and stability in the Syrian Arab Republic will prevail under the shadow of the wise leadership of Dr. Bashar al-Assad,” Naimi told the crowd.
The UAE’s position has in some ways been more moderate than neighboring Saudi Arabia, with Abu Dhabi openly seeking to rebuild ties with Syria and avoid outright tensions with Iran, whose revolutionary Shiite Islamic Republic backed Assad and was engaged in a bout for regional influence with Sunni Muslim monarchies on the Arabian Peninsula. The UAE’s recent moves, however, came amid changing power dynamics across the Middle East.
The UAE was among the many nations to shutter its embassy in Syria in 2011, as mass anti-government protests devolved into all-out war and it later joined the likes of the U.S., Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and, even to some extent, Israel in backing various insurgent groups looking to overthrow Assad. This backing declined amid ideological infighting among such fighters, along with the rise of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) and Russia’s entry into the battle on the government’s behalf in 2015.
Iran, on the other hand, has supported its only longtime Arab ally from the early stages of the conflict, and Syrian government wins brought with them an enhanced presence of mostly Shiite Muslim militias mobilized by Tehran. In 2016, Saudi Arabia cut ties with Iran as sectarian frictions flared between the two rivals.
The UAE merely downgraded its relations at the time, and has since made cautious inroads in defusing tensions with Iran as friction again mounted, stoked by the U.S. decision last year to exit a 2015 multilateral nuclear deal with Iran and impose heavy sanctions against it. The UAE has declined to assign blame to Iran for unclaimed attacks earlier this year on oil tankers in Emirati waters and even sent a delegation of coast guard officials to Tehran for maritime cooperation talks in July.
After Saudi oil facilities were struck in a September attack claimed by Yemen’s Ansar Allah, or Houthi, movement—a group the Abu Dhabi backed Riyadh in fighting—but blamed on Iran, however, the UAE joined Australia, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom in joining a U.S.-led naval coalition. Iran has attempted to establish its own grouping made up exclusively of regional powers, and though neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE has accepted the invite, another power seemed poised to defuse the potential crisis—Russia.
Moscow’s success in gathering rival parties for talks in Syria has helped cement its burgeoning status as a top diplomatic power in the region and has galvanized Gulf Cooperation Council nations to engage Russia, which has largely worked with non-Arab powers Iran and Turkey. As Russian troops assumed U.S. military positions left behind to avoid a fight between NATO ally Turkey and Pentagon-backed Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin made back-to-back visits to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
On the top of his agenda was pushing for reconciliation with Syria, and calming tensions in the Persian Gulf. Russian officials have repeatedly called for Syria’s return to the Arab League, a measure that has growing support among its 21 active members, though deeply opposed by the U.S.
The UAE has yet to officially throw its weight behind such a decision, which Arab League chief Ahmed Aboul Gheit has said would require a “consensus” among member states.
Back at the UAE’s National Day event Monday in Damascus, however, Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad emphasized the bilateral ties between the two countries, pointing out “that Syria will not forget that the UAE has stood by its side in its war on terrorism,” according to a readout shared by his ministry. The report cited Mikdad as saying that “Syria is winning big victories against terrorism and that the rest of the areas controlled by terrorist organizations will return to the state, calling for Arab cooperation in facing the dangers facing the region.”