Rehabilitating Assad: The struggle for influence in Syria's endgame
Not too many years ago, Iran was struggling to support the Syrian regime when its survival was on the line amid a gruesome civil war.
Fighting Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian government were a host of armed militias which had received massive amounts of money from several Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member-states.
Today, however, Tehran is observing most Gulf monarchies coming to terms with the Assad regime’s survival.
Within the GCC, Abu Dhabi is the main driver behind efforts to rehabilitate Syria’s government, recently highlighted by the United Arab Emirates (UAE)’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s (AbZ) visit to Damascus where he and an Emirati delegation met with Assad.
"Syria could easily become a country where there is growing geopolitical and geoeconomic competition between Tehran and Abu Dhabi"
In many ways, AbZ’s recent trip to Damascus and a more general renormalisation of Syria’s relationships across the Arab region constitute a major victory for the Islamic Republic.
“This is in the interest of all the nations of the region. Iran not only welcomes this process, but also makes every effort to accelerate it for the Arab and Syrian countries to resume their relations,” said Saeed Khatibzadeh, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman.
Nonetheless, the Iranians don’t know what will come next in Syria and how Damascus’s renormalised diplomatic relations with a growing list of Arab capitals will play out geopolitically in the greater Middle East. There could be important ramifications for the decades-old rivalries between certain Arab power centres and Iran.
What is clear is that the UAE and other countries in the Arab world which have reembraced Assad are not trying to portray their rapprochements with Damascus as huge victories for Tehran.
On the contrary, the message from Abu Dhabi is that its re-engagement with Syria over the past few years has been all about bringing the country back into the Arab region’s fold so that Syria can become less dependent on Iran.
According to certain reports, AbZ’s visit to Damascus achieved at least one positive outcome from the standpoint of weakening Iran’s hand in post-conflict Syria. Soon after Abu Dhabi’s chief diplomat went to Damascus, some pundits and media outlets began discussing the return of Javad Ghaffari, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander in Syria, to Iran.
According to certain sources, Ghaffari leaving Syria was an outcome of the UAE’s purported growing influence over Damascus. Yet Syrian and Iranian sources maintain that he returned to Iran for other reasons, meaning that Assad did not expel the IRGC commander to please the Emiratis.
In any event, Syria could easily become a country where there is growing geopolitical and geoeconomic competition between Tehran and Abu Dhabi. This leaves Damascus in a difficult position.
On one hand, Iran did much to help Assad’s regime survive over the past decade. Yet of the countries on good terms with the Damascus regime, it seems that only US-friendly countries in the GCC might have the means to influence the US into softening its stance against Syria’s government. The Syrian regime is aware of how effectively the UAE can lobby in certain western capitals.
“Assad is keenly aware of the debt he owes to Iran for his survival,” said Dr Joshua Landis, a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute who teaches Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma, in an interview with The New Arab. “He will not forsake Iran. All the same, only the Gulf countries have the leverage in Washington to help roll back US sanctions that are suffocating Syria's economy.”
Not all in Tehran see Syria’s rapprochement with the UAE as positive news. Some voices in the Islamic Republic have concerns about Iranian-Syrian relations weakening because of Damascus re-establishing formal relations with the GCC states that previously supported anti-Assad groups.
A Tehran Times article on 13 November said the following about the UAE-Syria rapprochement: “The UAE was part of the group of countries that worked over the last decade to topple the Syrian government. That they failed to achieve a regime change in Damascus doesn’t mean that they became allies of Syria overnight.”
But some analysts believe that Iran has no reason to feel threatened by the Abu Dhabi-Assad rapprochement because there are no grounds for believing that Assad will take steps to push his country away from the Islamic Republic.
"Assad is keenly aware of the debt he owes to Iran for his survival [...] All the same, only the Gulf countries have the leverage in Washington to help roll back US sanctions"
“Both Assad and Tehran will utilize the Emirati and Arab reach to strengthen their positions,” wrote Dr Ali Bakir, a Research Assistant Professor at the Ibn Khaldon Center for Humanities and Social Sciences at Qatar University.
“In other words, the UAE will be financing the return of Assad politically, diplomatically, and financially, thus further deepening Iran’s influence. For years, Iranians have been working to achieve these goals without avail. On its behalf, there is now someone who is willing to achieve these goals.”
For now, the UAE is set on reaccepting Assad into the club of ‘legitimate’ Arab leaders. Although Abu Dhabi is doing so in the name of pursuing several objectives, including pushing out Iranian influence from Syria, it remains to be seen how much success the Emiratis can achieve in Syria. One important unknown variable in the equation has to do with Riyadh.
“If the UAE can convince Saudi Arabia to buy into its Syria strategy, using the argument that the only way to diminish Iran's position in Syria is for the Gulf to participate in reconstruction and to bring Syria in from the cold, I believe Washington and Israel will go along with Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia,” according to Dr. Landis.
“Saudi Arabia will be the key.”
What does the reconciliation of relations between Damascus and Abu Dhabi mean for the Abraham Accords? It would not be illogical to assume that Emirati activism either does entail - or will later entail - efforts to try to bring Syria into a peace deal with Israel.
Besides the UAE, the other three states that normalised with Israel last year - Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco - did so through processes that Abu Dhabi did much to facilitate. Also, it was no surprise that Saddam Haftar’s recent flight into Israel was from Dubai.
To be sure, joining the Abraham Accords would be a tough pill for Damascus to swallow. So, what would be in it for Syria? Perhaps the end of Washington’s financial warfare.
If this becomes a possible scenario, there would be every reason to assume that Tehran would use all its leverage in Syria to prevent it from happening. Under such circumstances, the Emiratis could say to Assad’s regime, ‘Stay with Tehran and remain isolated and heavily sanctioned or eject these Iran-backed militias, work closely with us, and we’ll help you gradually normalise with Washington.’
But without the Golan Heights returning to the Syrian government’s control, some experts do not take seriously the possibility of this scenario.
"The Emiratis could say to Assad's regime, 'Stay with Tehran and remain isolated and heavily sanctioned or eject these Iran-backed militias, work closely with us, and we'll help you gradually normalise with Washington'"
“I do not think that Assad can normalise with Israel without getting a good deal on the Golan and letting go of Hezbollah,” Dr Landis told TNA.
“That seems out of reach for Assad today. But Assad can work to limit Iran's and Hezbollah's efforts to build missile bases close to the Golan and Israel. That would be a big win for Israel and a big win for Assad, who must be getting tired of the frequent Israeli attacks on his military bases and security infrastructure. Iran does not seem to be learning the lesson that Israel is trying to teach it in Syria, but Assad may have.”
When it comes to the Syrian economy, one factor which will help ensure that Iran maintains an upper hand over GCC members such as the UAE is the Caesar Act.
These sweeping US sanctions, which Washington imposed during the Trump era, target firms, institutions, and individuals (both Syrian and non-Syrian) doing business with sectors of the Syrian economy dominated by the regime.
In practice, this basically prevents anyone anywhere from being a potential partner in the reconstruction of Syria without the risk of being targeted by the Caesar Act.
“The Caesar Act certainly plays a role in ensuring that no major level of GCC financial patronage can be fostered inside Syria,” Ali Ahmadi, a Tehran-based geopolitical analyst, told TNA. “US sanctions lock various pools of financial resources out of Syria and countries like Iran, Russia and China will largely be in charge of the reconstruction”.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.
Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero