Assad comeback epitomizes Gulf states’ world power ambitions

Visits to Oman and the UAE in recent weeks mark another step in the Syrian president’s rehabilitation within the region, and the weakening of Western influence.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad received red carpet treatment on his second official visit to Abu Dhabi on March 19, a week after he had visited Oman, showing that his isolation on the Arab stage may come to an end. Though the process began with humanitarian aid after the devastating February earthquakes that struck the northwest region, the Assad case is but a symptom of much deeper change in the Middle East.

The Western agenda, which gave the resilient Syrian leader pariah status because of accusations of genocide against his own people, is being put on the back burner with the major power reshuffle in the region, brought about by the disalignment of traditional Western allies, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Russia’s backing of the Damascus regime allowed Putin to reclaim superpower status in 2013 when he saved Assad from Western annihilation. Now it has reinforced its Middle East alliance thanks to OPEC+, where Moscow’s solidarity with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to keep oil prices high now balances the pro-NATO stance of the Gulf Cooperation Council at large.

And the Chinese-brokered Iran-Saudi agreement provides security guarantees to the kingdom that Riyadh did not think it could get from the West. Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative will keep Iran’s nose just above the water. The Islamic Republic and its Houthi surrogates won’t launch their Shahed missiles on Saudi territory anymore without China turning a blind eye.

The Trump administration’s abrupt withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has brought Iran closer than ever to the nuclear military threshold, and Israeli attacks on Iranian facilities did not significantly deter the nuke process. Trump’s great achievement in the region, the Abraham Accords, is being jeopardized by the extreme right-wing coalition in power in Israel.

The Arab partners’ embarrassment over the accords is undermining a cornerstone of the US-brokered regional peacekeeping, as Israel’s anti-Palestinian policy has become a major irritant for the Arab public. Saudi Arabia, after opening its skies to Israeli commercial flights and giving its OK to Bahrain signing the accords, is now halting any further rapprochement with the Jewish state. The UAE is also pulling back on its relations with Israel — and how better to showcase the shift than to receive the president of Syria.

Saudi Arabia, which did not sign the Abraham Accords, can still keep the Assad regime at bay and wait for significant concessions in Lebanon, where the Iranian-Syrian alliance has boosted Hezbollah to the detriment of Riyadh’s Sunni partners.

But for the UAE, pumping aid money into quake-ravaged Syria is a reminder to the Assad regime that cash-strapped Iran can do little in that regard. Thus, bringing Syria back into the Arab fold is a means to weaken the Iranian “Shia crescent policy,” which extends from Tehran to Beirut via Baghdad and Damascus. Democracy promotion in the Levant is not on the to-do list of illiberal powers that challenge the Western human rights language.

The Assad regime also benefits from the current domestic problems that hamper the main backer of its Sunni and Islamist opposition — the Turkish president. Facing a difficult election in two months, Recep Tayyip Erdogan can hardly risk any saber-rattling in Syria when the army is busy relieving homeless populations which, in the hardest-hit Anatolian southeast, were key to the AKP electorate and might think twice this time when they go to the polls on May 14.

Always the pragmatist in spite of his endless insults and threats, Erdogan had already been coerced by Putin into meeting soon with former arch-enemy Assad under the Kremlin’s auspices, in exchange for discounted Russian oil supplies for the suffering Turkish economy. Not to mention that the 3 million-plus Syrian refugees in Turkey are blamed by Erdogan’s ultranationalist ruling coalition for job scarcity for Turks, while Erdogan, in one of his many about faces, is toying with their forced repatriation.

In such a dire environment, Assad has paradoxically become a token of a newly assertive Arab policy. The wealthy GCC states are now jockeying with their global partners on a contractual, disaffiliated basis, emphasizing the ambitions of the Gulf region to become a world power hub of its own.

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