On Monday, the United Arab Emirates’ national-security adviser visited Tehran, in an apparent attempt to smooth over relations with a country it generally sees as a threat. But three years ago, the UAE took what might be considered a step in this direction by reestablishing diplomatic ties with Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, which is Iran’s closest ally. The Arab league had expelled Syria in 2011 after Assad launched a bloody war against his own people. And the Emiratis are not the only ones interested in reconciliation. Amotz Asa-El explains what has changed:
The role of the global superpowers in the Middle East has transformed dramatically since the [Syrian] civil war’s outbreak. Back then, Russia was on the region’s margins, where it had been since Egypt’s defection from Moscow’s orbit to Washington’s in the 1970s. This configuration ended in 2015, when Russia opened the Khmeimim airbase in western Syria and thrust its air force into the thick of the Syrian civil war—and soon determined that war’s outcome.
The Obama administration’s failure to oppose the Russian move, even verbally, alongside President Obama’s failure to follow through on his threat to punish Assad for launching chemical-weapons attacks on his own people, led Arab leaders to conclude that Washington’s strategic domination of the Middle East was being seriously challenged, and possibly eclipsed, by Moscow. Russia’s agenda therefore won new respect, and the first item on that agenda was the preservation of the Assad dynasty—which has been loyal to Moscow since its establishment in 1971, and provided Russia with a Mediterranean naval base at Tartus, a precious asset from the Russian point of view.
At the same time, Arab governments are also being pushed back toward Assad’s presidential palace by two regional players, Turkey and Iran.
In Asa-El’s view, reconciliation with Damascus doesn’t necessary signal reconciliation with Tehran:
The anti-Iranian dynamic [driving the Gulf Arab states] became glaring [last] month, when Emirati and Bahraini warships joined Israeli and U.S. vessels in a multilateral naval exercise in the Red Sea. This was an Arab-Israeli show of military harmony that until recently was unthinkable—as unthinkable as a renewed pan-Arab embrace of Bashar al-Assad and his regime.