UAE’s First High-level Contact with Assad: More than a Phone Call, Less than Normalization

An unusual phone call at a critical time in the region was made on Friday by one of the United Arab Emirates most influential leaders Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed to Syrian President Bashar al Assad. MBZ is Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE’s armed forces. The call surprised many political observers and millions of Syrian alike.

The Long Silence

The two leaders, once thought to be good friends and longtime acquaintances have not spoken for some nine years of the Syrian conflict, mainly due to huge support provided by the UAE’s strong man MBZ to fanatic and rebel groups that have been fighting in Syria in a frustrating effort to topple Assad’s government.

The UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have played pivotal roles at various phases of the war in Syria. They have lent financial, military, intelligence and logistical support to terror groups operating in Syria, and actively contributed to the bloodshed of hundreds of thousands of Syrians as well as the destruction of much of the Syrian economy and infrastructure. Therefore, Friday’s phone conversation between Assad and MBZ denotes significant political and economic implications and messages, given the conflicting agendas and affiliations of the aforementioned parties in Syria and further beyond.

What Led to the Call, Erdogan or Coronavirus?

The timing of this developments could prove as significant as its occurrence, coming only a few days after a senior Russian delegation left Damascus where final touches were agreed with the Syrian leader regarding the implementation of the truce deal struck by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan last month in Moscow. The deal was regarding Idlib, where Russia and Turkey have been supporting opposite parties. The phone call by the UAE’s strongest man comes one and a half years after reopening the United Arab Emirates embassy in Damascus which had been closed down, along with the majority of Gulf, Arab and Western missions in Damascus, at the outset of the Syrian conflict in 2011.

Now that the military aspect of the conflict in Syria appears to be quickly coming to an end, with the Syrian army retaking all major cities and towns except for Idlib and parts located east of the Euphrates, many Gulf and other Arab countries are seeking a resumption of political ties with Syria and its triumphant leader Assad.

Abu Dhabi’s Relations With Damascus

Bin Zayed’s Friday phone call has had some quick ramifications that signal a thaw in the thick ice that has marked relations between Abu Dhabi and Damascus for nine years, and a new page between the two nations might well have been opened. One day after the call, the UAE was reported to have released some US $3 billion of Syrian funds frozen for seven years in its banks. The official Emirati news agency WAM said Assad and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan discussed efforts to contain the coronavirus outbreak and reviewed preventive measures to fight it. But it is becoming clear that what was discussed and agreed between the two leaders was much wider than only the pandemic issue.

Many observers have written about the significance of this daring step taken by one of the USA’s top and most powerful regional allies in the Gulf, underlining the fact that such a move could not have been made with Washington’s tacit approval much less instructions. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are staunch adversaries of both Iran and Turkey in the Gulf and Arab region, and MBZ’s endeavor towards Assad is difficult to disassociate from Abu Dhabi and Riyadh’s vicious campaigns to halt and thwart Erdogan’s expansionist schemes in Syria, Libya, the Gulf region and beyond.

More Implications of Bin Zayed’s Move Towards Assad

Has the Crown Prince chosen, or was advised to seize, a sensitive timing for his overture towards Damascus, that would minimize the possibility of being turned down by Assad? The fact remains that millions of Syrians are extremely against any normalization of diplomatic ties with ANY country that has taken part in the war against Syria, and stand firm against the return of their country to the Arab League whom they accuse  of being a catalyst part of the conspiracy to destroy Syria both militarily and economically. However, the UAE could provide Syria with much-needed substantive economic and health support in its efforts against the Coronavirus pandemic.

MBZ, believed to be the United Arab Emirates’ day-to-day ruler, is reported to have told President Assad during the conversation that “Syria and the UAE need to place the humanitarian solidarity over political issues during this common challenge that we all are facing.” The crown prince of the affluently oil-rich Abu Dhabi also affirmed that Syria “will not be left alone during these delicate and critical circumstances,” as was reported by both Syrian and Emirati official media channels. Syria’s official presidential Twitter account also confirmed that the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince stressed that the UAE will support the “Syrian people during these exceptional times.”

Syria’s Struggle With Coronavirus

Years of unabated conflict, exacerbated by stringent US-led sanctions against Damascus, have decimated much of the health system infrastructure in Syria. Yesterday, Syria confirmed 4 new Covid-19 infections raising the total to nine cases. Syria also recorded one death of a woman soon after being rushed to a hospital Sunday, with the woman thus becoming the first officially recognized fatality of the pandemic in Syria.

The government has imposed a virtual lockdown across Syria in a desperate effort to fend off and contain the potential spread of the Coronavirus that has become the government’s toughest challenge. The Syrian Defense Ministry issued two resolutions Saturday regarding reserve army officers and soldiers. All reserve officers who have served for more than three years, as well as those reservists of lesser military ranks who have served a total of seven years, will all be discharged now.

The UAE has officially closed down Orient TV network, the prime Arabic language anti-Assad media outlet run by a Syrian opposition businessman based in Dubai. The move, coupled with the release of billions of frozen Syrian assets in UAE banks and the pledge made by MBZ during his phone conversation with president Assad, are strong indications of a major U-turn by some Gulf and Arab nations towards Syria’s Assad.  With the Hajj to the Holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, being canceled and the shrine being shut down to millions of pilgrims this year due to coronavirus, the Arabian political “pilgrimage” back to Damascus appears to have already commenced.