Will Turkey-UAE rapprochement open the door for normalizing with Assad regime?
Enab Baladi – Diana Rahima
Diplomatic relations have been restored between Turkey and the UAE following the official visit of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan to Turkey on 24 November. This raises several questions about how this rapprochement will be reflected on the ground in Syria since both the UAE and Turkey stand on opposite sides and support opposing sides.
Where do Turkey and UAE stand in Syria?
Turkey’s relations with the UAE have been rocky due to several thorny issues for the past decade. Among the most important was Turkey’s clear military support for Qatar after the 2017 Gulf Crisis. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt abruptly severed diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar and imposed an embargo against it in hopes of making it comply with their long list of demands.
In addition, Turkey opposed the UAE policy in Libya and Syria, which contradicted its military operations in northwestern and eastern Syria. Turkey accused the UAE of creating a campaign targeting the Turkish lira.
Ankara accused Mohammed Dahlan, who is likely to serve as a special adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, of being involved in the attempted coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Ankara also considers him a terrorist for financing the Fethullah Gülen movement, classified as a terrorist organization by Turkey.
The UAE supports the Russian military intervention in Syria. In 2015, the UAE opposed a Saudi request, submitted by seven countries, namely Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Germany, Britain, France and the USA, demanding Russia to stop its military operations.
In 2020, the UAE established an initiative on the political process regarding Syria and the inclusion of the Kurdish component, which necessitated redrawing the field map in Idlib, controlling the M5 and M4 international highways, and pulling the rug out from under Turkey in the region.
The initiative provided for the serious re-opening of the Nassib border crossing between Syria and Jordan and the revitalization of the ports of Lattakia and Tartous, in exchange for the UAE’s attempt to postpone the implementation of the US’s Caesar Act, or at least ease its restrictions for a trial period.
Gradual steps to take a foothold
Until today, the positive trends in Turkish-UAE relations were the result of the gradual steps taken by Ankara in the past months to normalize relations with its regional opponents, Taha Odeh Oğlu, a researcher of Turkish affairs and international relations, told Enab Baladi.
Ankara first restarted diplomatic contact with Cairo, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Manama to heal the rift. Then, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi came to complete this prudent move.
Such a step is expected in the context of the pursuit of sustainable improvement of relations between the two countries, which went through a challenging period over the years; back then, each supported a different party to serve its own interests, whether in Egypt, Syria, Libya, or even in the eastern Mediterranean. This is a logical step in pursuing sustainable improvement of relations between the two countries.
Odeh Oğlu believes that Turkey is open and willing to reconcile with all countries with which it was previously at odds, especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Turkey’s move is focused on improving the economy, which it would hope to leverage into political gains.
On the other hand, the UAE, like other Gulf countries, is also looking for non-oil fiscal revenue, with oil prices down sharply. Today the UAE seems in dire need of a stable and robust foothold for investment in the world and strong trading partners able to support its plans for economic growth.
An economical cover for political trade-offs: Syria remains prominent
During Turkey’s participation in the Expo 2020 Dubai, Turkish ambassador to the UAE Tugay Tunçer announced, “Our trade with the UAE is at US$8.5 billion and the numbers are increasing – in the first six months we saw close to a one hundred percent increase, and Expo 2020 will contribute to [this growth].”
The UAE Minister of Economy, Abdulla Bin Touq al-Marri, said that the economic ties between the UAE and Turkey are experiencing continuous development, noting that the trade between the two countries has jumped by 100 percent in the first half of this year.
According to Mahmoud Alloush, a researcher in Turkish affairs and international relations, the Turkish-UAE reconciliation is anchored on two basic foundations: cooperation in the spheres of economy and trade for managing differences in regional issues as an alternative to direct confrontation.
Syria was and remains one of the key points of contention between the UAE and Turkey, with their conflicting positions regarding the legitimacy of the Assad regime and the issue of the Kurdish Units.
Alloush said that, seemingly, there are no signs that this conflict will end soon. Over the past years, the Turkish media has accused the UAE of providing support and military training to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the context of its regional conflict with Turkey. It is noteworthy that Ankara considers the SDF an extension of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey for three decades.
The Turks may understand why the UAE takes a different stance concerning the Syrian issue. Yet, they are very sensitive with respect to the PKK, according to Alloush. They cannot tolerate any country that offers support to the PKK. And if the UAE intends to reform its relations with Ankara, Abu Dhabi has to be more cautious from now on concerning the issue of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the SDF’s mainstay.
|“The Turkish-UAE rapprochement does not help to reach a political solution to the conflict in Syria. And on the other hand, the support that the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration receives from the UAE will become the first scapegoat offered for deepening this rapprochement.
If this happens, it will satisfy the Turkish government and the Syrian regime simultaneously.
Syrian-Canadian academic Faisal Abbas Muhammad
Does the UAE encourage Turkey to normalize with Assad?
Researcher Mahmoud Alloush believes that the UAE opening to Damascus increases Turkey’s concerns about the presence of Arab efforts that weaken its role in Syria.
The UAE introduces this openness as one of the manifestations of a shift in its foreign policy. This openness in the UAE’s foreign policy aims to solve problems and calm regional conflicts; it does not target other regional countries like Turkey or Iran.
It is in the interest of Turkey and the UAE to maintain the new course. However, they have to protect it from conflicting interests in regional conflicts, especially in Syria. This may also help them develop a strategy for managing disputes to explore the possibility of creating a joint approach to the Syrian issue, according to Alloush.
The Syrian-Canadian academic Faisal Abbas Muhammad, who holds a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern studies from Canada, told Enab Baladi that the UAE shares with several other Arab regimes its support for the efforts to normalize ties with the Syrian regime and allows the Syrian government to bring its seat back to the Arab League. Yet, the UAE’s attempt to restore relations with Turkey is a largely independent project.
The UAE Foreign Minister, Abdullah bin Zayed, made an official visit to Syria before Mohammed bin Zayed (the actual ruler of the Emirates) went to Turkey, which is undoubtedly a step related to the most critical project to improve relations with Turkey, according to the academic.
He believes that Erdogan and Ibn Zayed remained silent on controversial political issues, including the Syrian issue and limited their statements to an agreement to enhance economic cooperation. However, this does not convince any of the observers that no discussion has been carried out on political differences.
There is currently talk in the Turkish political lobbies of preparations being made to conclude a strategic and fateful deal between Ankara and Damascus, amid accelerating events and complex bargains, with Russia participating in its management.
On 4 September, local media outlets reported that some Turkish officials were talking about an upcoming meeting in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, between the Head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization and the director of the National Security Office, Major General Ali Mamlouk. These reports came from the Turkish newspaper Türkiye Gazetesi, known for its close ties with the ruling Justice and Development Party.
The former Head of Turkey’s General Staff Intelligence Agency, İsmail Hakkı Pekin, said that the meeting, which will be held in Baghdad, could be the beginning of a new process.
For the first time since 2011, Mamlouk and Fidan had held a meeting in the Russian capital, Moscow, in January 2020. They discussed several issues, the most important of which is the Turkish presence in Syria. Turkey’s side did not comment on this meeting.
Turkey has not recognized the Syrian regime since the start of popular protests in Syria in 2011. The Turkish-Syrian relations have been severed since then in light of Turkey’s support for the Syrian opposition. Researcher Taha Odeh Oğlu talked about a deal that may later include other countries in pursuit of a settlement that could bring a peaceful end to Syria’s conflict, given the recent positive statements issued by senior officials in Ankara. These statements indicate that Turkey could politically normalize with the Syrian regime, coinciding with efforts to improve relations with Egypt and the UAE.
The visit of the Syrian delegation representing the Syrian Ministry of Interior in the periodic meetings of the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) in Istanbul came after talking about the imminent process of normalizing bilateral relations between Turkey and the Syrian regime. Ankara acknowledged through its senior officials that communication with the Syrian regime Intelligence is still ongoing. This was the first visit of its kind by the Syrian government’s delegation to Turkey since peaceful protests against Bashar al-Assad’s government erupted in March 2011. The visit coincided with the election of Emirati Major General Ahmed Nasser al-Raisi as the new head of the organization.
According to Odeh Oğlu, the Turkish position on the Syrian regime is still ambiguous. However, in recent months it appears that it carries within it signs of significant developments behind doors that intend to dismantle the political knots that prevent regional solutions.
Does Turkey need normalization with the Syrian regime?
Unannounced contacts between the Syrian regime and the Turkish government occur every now and then. Yet, Turkey does not need to normalize with the Assad regime to make gains in Syria, find a solution to the issue of Syrian refugees in its territory or scale down the power of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration and the SDF, or achieve economic domination over a part of northern Syria, according to academic Faisal Abbas Muhammad.
Turkish concerns are solved only by two players, which are stronger and more important than the Syrian regime and much more influential than the UAE, namely Russia and the USA.
Faisal Abba Muhammad believes that the course of Turkish-UAE relations, the pace of their acceleration, and the sort of understandings that may result from them are all factors that will later determine the effects of the rapprochement on Syria in the future.
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