Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah, was received with honors in the United Arab Emirates, which recently normalized relations with Israel, for his first visit to an Arab country since 2011. A an event that could not take place without Iranian approval, experts believe, and which brings Syria a little closer to reintegration into the Arab League.
Bashar al-Assad’s visit to the United Arab Emirates on March 18, the Syrian president’s first to an Arab country since 2011, may have caused some astonishment among those who are not accustomed to the great Middle Eastern paradoxes. Or quite simply principles of realpolitik.
Indeed, how to explain that the ally of Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah, which contributed with Russia to save its regime, and which are part of the “axis of the Resistance” against Israel and the United States, was he able to go to the Emirates, the leader of the Arab countries having normalized their relations with the Jewish state within the framework of the Abraham agreements imagined by the American administration, and one of the main actors in the Yemeni conflict?
Realpolitik therefore, since the experts of the region agree to indicate that this visit could not be made without the approval of the Iranians, with whom the Syrian president must compose in his own country.
“Syria is on high alert for suspicious moves by some Arab countries to normalize relations with the Zionist regime,” said on 1er MarchGeneral Ali Mamlouk, the powerful head of Syrian intelligence, facing Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian during a visit to Tehran.
Iranian green light
“Bashar al-Assad does not have much leeway, he cannot distance himself from Tehran by going without its agreement to the Emirates, the main regional power which has recently normalized its relations with Israel, considered the enemy hated by the Iranians,” said Fabrice Balanche, lecturer at Lyon 2 University, geographer and specialist in Syria, interviewed by France 24.
An opinion shared by Ziad Majed, professor at the American University of Paris, specialist in the Middle East and one of the authors of “In the head of Bashar al-Assad”, Actes Sud.
“The diplomacy of the Syrian regime is modeled on that of its Russian and Iranian protectors, of which it remains obliged and cannot free itself, he indicates. It has therefore certainly obtained an Iranian and Russian green light to return in Abu Dhabi, because both find a certain interest there in seeing him discuss with Mohammed ben Zayed, says MBZ, the very influential crown prince of Abu Dhabi”.
Ziad Majed explains that the Iranian Islamic Republic, “like the pro-Iranian Hezbollah in Lebanon”, has always been in “an extremely pragmatic posture in which everything is permitted, in which all kinds of contacts, alliances or maneuvers are allowed to him, while everything is forbidden for his adversaries”.
“Abraham’s agreements or not, the Iranians also have an interest in having contacts with the Emiratis through Bashar al-Assad or other actors, in particular to discuss Yemen where they intervene in opposing camps, without however accepting the slightest concession from the Syrian president that would harm their interests, and excluding any idea of normalization between Syria and Israel”.
Tehran’s interest can also be of an economic nature, underlines Fabrice Balanche, who also mentions “red lines not to be crossed for Syria”, in particular on all questions concerning the Jewish state.
“If Bashar al-Assad manages to obtain financial aid from the Gulf countries to revive the economy and launch the reconstruction of the country, this will relieve the Iranians who will have less need to help Bashar al-Assad’s regime financially, “Damascus only manages to survive economically thanks to its allies, and in particular thanks to Iranian oil and financial support from Tehran, which is costing it dearly while its own economic situation is in bad shape.”
A “highly symbolic” visit
The Iranians, like the Russians, also have every interest in seeing the Syrian president rejoin the Arab chessboard because he would be synonymous with a new failure for the Westerners who had called and worked for a change of regime in Damascus, before Tehran and Moscow does not save the day.
“Bashar al-Assad went to the Emirates with confidence, in the sense that the Syrian President and MBZ have had quite cordial relations for several years, since this Gulf country is the first to have reopened its embassy in Damascus, and is working for some time to obtain the reintegration of Syria into the Arab League, continues Fabrice Balanche. So if at the beginning of November 2022, the Syrian president finds himself in Algiers, where the next Arab League summit will be organized, and is caught in photo with the other leaders and heads of state, it will mean that he has won his bet by reintegrating into the Arab family and regaining his legitimacy, and it will also be a victory for his Russian and Iranian godfathers”.
Banished from the international community by Western powers, accused of having used chemical weapons against its population, isolated by the Sunni powers of the region, the Syrian regime was suspended from the ranks of the Arab League in November 2011 , in protest to the repression of the uprising against the regime.
“Bashar al-Assad turns to his Arab partners, who have the means to provide him with economic aid for the reconstruction of the country, because he knows that he does not have much to expect from Westerners, and that “He suspects that it will be harder to restore his image and regain his legitimacy with them”.
Ziad Majed believes that between “Western sanctions against Moscow and the international public opinion which rumbles against the war launched by the Kremlin against Ukraine, it is very unlikely that we will hear again the few voices which were raised in the West to demand the resumption or normalization of relations with the regime of Bashar al-Assad”.
“While Syria finds itself economically and financially in a catastrophic situation while the regime is suffocated by sanctions, Bashar al-Assad, accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, can therefore only turn to the Arab countries pay less attention to their balance sheet”, he adds.
And to conclude: “hence the importance of this highly symbolic visit for the Syrian leader who wants to show that he is once again popular, especially in the Arab world, and that he is back on the regional scene after having been received with honors by a country which plays a very active role on the international level and which is currently a member of the Security Council”.