Yesterday, the Saudi foreign minister arrived in Damascus to meet with President Bashar al-Assad, who for many years had been a pariah in the Arab world because of his bloody war against his own people and his alliance with Iran. The meeting follows on the heels of visits by the respective foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates—as well as delegations from six other Arab states. Andrew Tabler warns against the move to normalize relations with the Syrian dictator:
Abu Dhabi’s outreach to Assad [is] rooted in what Assad really wants—money with few strings attached. Throughout the war, the UAE sought to undermine its rival, Qatar, and Qatar’s ally in Syria, Turkey, which holds considerable territory in Syria’s northwest. In 2018, Abu Dhabi attempted to reopen its embassy in Damascus with the idea that outreach to Assad would make Turkey’s position in Syria more untenable.
As tensions with Qatar and Turkey have eased, Abu Dhabi now focuses on reducing Iranian influence—militias and weapons—in Syria. Abu Dhabi understands that Bashar is desperate for the kind of money only an Arab Gulf country can deliver to rebuild Syria. As the logic goes, a little recognition and some petrodollars for reconstruction could be used as carrots to alter Bashar’s logic at the negotiating table with the opposition, and perhaps more importantly, reduce [his] dependence on Iran in favor of Arab states—many of which are now aligned with Israel as part of the Abraham Accords.
At the same time, Tabler believes it unlikely that Assad will change his behavior, or that Congress will repeal its sanctions on his regime, with predictable results:
If there is not progress, the Arab countries normalizing with Assad and engaging in reconstruction will almost certainly be hit with Treasury designations and other sanctions violations. Unless there are major changes in the way Assad rules and does business, including his tolerance of Iranian militias and assets on Syrian soil and Captagon-production facilities, this will be yet another exercise of throwing good Arab money after bad to recoup steady losses to Iran in the Levant.