After normalising Israel, UAE seeks to legitimise Assad
The UAE's well-documented moves to rehabilitate and normalise the Assad regime took a great leap forward last week with the visit of Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE's foreign minister to Damascus.
"We are concerned by reports of this meeting and the signal it sends," said US State Department spokesman Ned Price reacting to the most high profile visit by any Arab state to Damascus since the mass-murderous civil war Assad unleashed in 2011.
If the US is truly 'concerned' by this move, it has a funny way of showing it. The UAE has been the veritable vanguard of formal attempts to bring Assad back into the fold and it has not done so clandestinely. The UAE has not only been lobbying on behalf of Assad, but it has openly admonished the US for the apparent detrimental effect of sanctions on rapprochement efforts with Damascus, while it reopened its embassy with the regime in 2018.
"Wherever counterrevolution has reared its head since the beginning of the Arab revolutions, the US has ended up either siding with it"
It would thus be foolish to imagine that the US, despite its recent claims of 'concern', carries any meaningful opposition to the UAE's attempts to reintegrate Assad into, at the very least, the post-Arab spring order in the region.
Wherever counterrevolution has reared its head since the beginning of the Arab revolutions, the US has ended up either siding with it (such as in Egypt, Bahrain, Iraq and Yemen) or turning a blind eye to it (such as in Syria, Libya and Tunisia). It is hardly surprising, then, that despite official condemnations, the US has effectively paved the way for the UAE to take these bold strides to rehabilitate the criminal Assad regime.
While much of the focus is placed on US 'retreatism' from MENA, and this is certainly a powerful factor in machinations within the region, we have also seen close US allies fall in line behind the Emirati Assad rapprochement plan without any of the kind of action the US could take it if it really wanted to halt it.
Take Jordan, one of the US's key allies – early last month, King Abdullah received his first call from Assad in a decade, during which the two tyrants discussed ways to enhance 'cooperation' between the two 'brotherly countries' and affirm Jordanian support for 'Syria’s sovereignty.' This followed the ratification of a deal to pipe Egyptian gas to Jordan for electricity to be transmitted into Lebanon via Assad's Syria.
While many might overlook the significance of this deal and consider it in purely pragmatic terms, it stands as the biggest indication yet that the Biden administration is willing to allow Assad to shake off his blood-soaked international pariah status. The deal would mean the US and Assad working together harmoniously.
Despite the allegedly tough US sanctions against Syria, in particular the humanitarian-centred Caesar Act (so named for the nom de guerre of a whistleblower who exposed the extent of death in Assad's extermination camps), the US has been working out ways to circumvent its own sanctions for the sake of working with Assad.
The US might formally project the myth of itself as a 'humanitarian' power, but with the foreign policy realist trajectory of the US under Obama, Trump and Biden, it was a matter of time before Assad's rehabilitation was considered more pragmatically sound than the millions who suffer and have suffered due to Assad. The US, via the gas deal, now effectively enables Assad-friendly regional powers to financially cooperate with Assad through the World Bank, avoiding all sanctions.
The US's very deliberate undermining of its own 'humanitarian' sanctions is what has created the flurry of economic activity between the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. The Saudis might seem to be more circumspect than the UAE in normalisation with Damascus, but they are simply letting their allies blaze the trail, so to speak.
The Kingdom seeks to further neutralise the perceived threat of Iran by not only normalising Assad's place in the region but also by paying for the 'reconstruction' of Syria, a circumstance that has massive financial potential for regional and global kleptocrats.
This is what words like 'rapprochement' and 'normalisation' truly mean regarding Assad – the financial and geopolitical profiteering by regional and world elites from mass human suffering and misery, specifically the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, the cleansing of millions and millions more who face crippling poverty, starvation and disease.
It is yet another victory for the forces of illiberalism and tyranny against the few proponents of democracy and human rights left.
The rebellion against Assad was defeated long ago, but the UAE still sees much to gain out of Syria's destruction. Whether Iranian, Saudi, Shia, Sunni or as is the case with the UAE or even Israeli interests, the reality is that the kleptocratic elites, tyrannical crime families and autocrats who rule the region, as well as avaricious democratic allies in the West and non-democratic allies in Russia and China, stand to gain much from Assad's rehabilitation.
"There are many more miseries in Syria yet to come. Any form of normalisation with Assad will only embolden the tyrant as he seeks to conquer all of Syria"
Among the destroyed cityscapes of Syria, the UAE, along with Saudi, sees for itself the opportunity to expand its budding empire of social exploitation, ultra-elitism and super-profiteering, including a potential and much-coveted seaport in the Mediterranean.
There are many more miseries in Syria yet to come. Any form of normalisation with Assad will only embolden the tyrant as he seeks to conquer all of Syria.
Part of the UAE's calculation in pushing forward the 'Arab normalisation' of Assad is to push Turkish influence out of Idlib. Whatever one thinks of the Erdogan regime, and it has committed many sins in Syria, without its presence in Idlib, the last rebel-held province will fall to Assad, Iran and Russia – this would be catastrophic. We have already seen the UAE essentially bribing Assad into attacking the province, with horrific consequences.
The normalisation of Assad, whether it is tacitly or openly approved by the US, simply means more death and suffering for Syrians. There is no rapprochement for them, only abandonment and indifference.
Sam Hamad is a writer and History PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow focusing on totalitarian ideologies.
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