Embassy without an ambassador: Is UAE attempting to influence Syrian regime?
Enab Baladi – Baraa Khattab
Two weeks have passed since the end of the tenure of the Syrian government’s ambassador to the Emirates, Ghassan Abbas, without any discussion about a possible replacement, raising questions about the relationship between the two parties.
The Syrian embassy in Abu Dhabi held a farewell meeting attended by members of the Syrian community on December 26, 2023, marking the end of the Syrian ambassador Ghassan Abbas’s term as head of the Syrian mission in the Emirates, as reported by the local newspaper “Al-Watan.”
No official representative from the Emirati side attended the farewell ceremony, and Damascus had not announced the appointment of a new ambassador up to the time of publishing this article.
Despite the strong relationship demonstrated by the UAE with the Syrian regime – being the first Arab country visited by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after 2011 – it did not send its congratulations for the New Year received by al-Assad.
In March 2022, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited the UAE in his first visit to an Arab country since 2011.
The Emirates News Agency (WAM) reported that during the meeting, the two sides discussed a number of issues of “mutual interest” and reaffirmed the preservation of the Syrian territories’ unity, the withdrawal of foreign forces, as well as supporting Syria and its people politically and humanitarianly to reach a peaceful solution to all the challenges they face.
Dr. Ahmad Korabi, a researcher at the Syrian Dialogue Center, told Enab Baladi that it is not possible to accurately judge the matter as it has only been about two weeks since the end of the Syrian ambassador’s tenure in the UAE.
Korabi speculated that the termination of the ambassador’s duties could either be due to pressure on the regime or as part of routine procedures.
He stated that ending the ambassador’s duties could be a routine procedure, and therefore, appointing a new ambassador may take a while, which is a normal procedure.
Korabi further explained that the second expected possibility is Emirati pressure on the Syrian regime, especially since there was no announcement of receiving or sending congratulations for the New Year between the UAE and the regime.
Taking these indicators into account, it can be said that there is an Emirati attempt to pressure the regime to positively deal with some steps related to reducing Captagon trade, specifically towards the Gulf states and Jordan, as Korabi told Enab Baladi.
Jordan, which is located on the smuggling route to the Gulf countries, has hosted about 1.6 million Syrian refugees since the outbreak of the protests in Syria in 2011. It has implemented several security measures at its borders with Syria and has arrested dozens of drug traffickers.
One of the files that has become prominent after Arab movements towards the regime is the file of drug smuggling from Syria to the Gulf countries, as many of the Arab meetings and encounters with the regime were accompanied by foiling smuggling attempts, in addition to an increase in its pace.
Korabi believes that the Emirati position on normalization with the regime is a strategic one, considering that the UAE was the first to open the door to the regime and normalize with it, including its inclusion in the Arab League and pressuring the United States to ease the sanctions, “all of these movements indicate that the UAE has a strategic position on the Arab Spring idea and thus wants to end this file.”
He added that the most important step in this file at the moment, after the failure of the Arab Spring in some countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, is an attempt to close the Syrian file by normalizing with the regime and floating it not only on an Arab level but also on a global level.
The UAE hosted the 28th session of the World Summit on Climate Action, while before the conference began, there were calls from human rights organizations and entities to cancel the invitation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the conference and demands to hand over al-Assad during his attendance at the climate summit after French investigative judges issued arrest warrants against him on November 15, 2023, for his use of internationally banned chemical weapons.
Syria’s delegation to the conference was led by the head of the regime’s government, Hussein Arnous, without an official statement from Syria on the reason for al-Assad’s absence despite receiving an invitation from the UAE.
Korabi told Enab Baladi that the existence of some pressure from the UAE on the regime is assumed to be understood not as stopping this strategic path of normalization with the regime as much as an attempt to pressure it to positively deal with some files requested from it, especially regarding stopping the smuggling of Captagon drugs to Arab countries.
Korabi does not expect the Syrian regime to be asked to reduce the influence of Iranian militias, as the Arab countries are aware that the regime is not capable of that.
The United Arab Emirates is one of the first countries to call for the return of the Syrian regime to the Arab League and initiated the resumption of its relations with the regime since 2018, opening its embassy in Damascus, followed by a constant increase in Emirati support within the regime-controlled areas, including vital projects related to the water system and the establishment of a photovoltaic power station.
On October 9, 2021, Syrian regime’s President Bashar al-Assad received the Emirati Foreign Minister, Abdullah bin Zayed, with a high-level delegation in the Syrian capital, Damascus, in the first visit of its kind since the beginning of the revolution in Syria in 2011.
Bin Zayed’s visit, which opened the door for bold steps towards the Syrian regime, is not the first Emirati position of this kind, as it was preceded in March 2021 by statements by Bin Zayed during a press conference with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in the Emirati capital, Abu Dhabi, in which he confirmed that the process of Syria’s return to its regional surroundings has begun and is unavoidable, according to him.
Bin Zayed also pointed out during the same meeting his country’s intention to discuss the Caesar sanctions imposed by Washington on the Syrian regime with the United States, considering the law as the “biggest challenge” to coordination and joint work with Syria.
Since the earthquake in Syria in February 2023, the UAE has shown clear involvement in the relief efforts in the regime-controlled areas, specifically in the Latakia province, despite the existence of three provinces under regime control suffering from the same disaster.
The relations between the two parties have not stopped over the past period, and al-Assad renewed his visit to the UAE in March 2023, accompanied by his wife, Asma al-Assad, in her first visit since 2011, received by the wife of the late Emirati president, Zayed bin Sultan, Fatima bint Mubarak.
The Syrian Presidency Facebook account mentioned that the talks addressed the bilateral relations between the two countries and how to enhance them, the “positive developments” in the region, and the importance of building on them to achieve stability as well as economic cooperation between the two sides.
Despite the Abu Dhabi government’s support for some Syrian armed opposition factions, especially in the southern region, in addition to its support for the “MOC” room established in Jordan under the supervision of the International Coalition, it shifted towards granting its relationship with the regime greater rapprochement, through a call from the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, to al-Assad, in March 2020, to discuss the ramifications of the spread of COVID-19, which Bin Zayed considered as humanitarian solidarity in times of ordeal.
Abu Dhabi anticipated those efforts, which are in the interest of the regime, by reopening the Emirati embassy in Damascus on December 27, 2018, after it was closed in 2012, along with other Gulf countries, due to the regime’s excessive use of force against protesters and causing bloodshed.
Abu Dhabi justified the reopening of its embassy from the standpoint of reaffirming “the UAE’s keenness to restore relations between the two brotherly countries to their natural course, enhancing and activating the Arab role in supporting the independence and sovereignty of the Syrian Arab Republic and its territorial integrity,” according to a statement by the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the time.
On the other hand, the Syrian regime appointed several ambassadors in some Arab countries, the latest of whom was the appointment of Deputy Foreign Minister Ayman Soussan as the ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
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