It’s a sign of Bashar Assad’s deep cruelty toward his political enemies that for more than a week he refused to allow in aid to earthquake victims in Syria’s northwest, because that is where the opponents to his rule still are in control. He’d just as soon see the people opposed to him left without succor, rather than allow aid in to help them survive. It’s too late to find any more Syrians alive under the rubble, but it’s not too late to allow in blankets, tents, medicine, food, and other humanitarian aid to keep those who survived the earthquake to stay alive. And at last Assad, prodded by the UAE, has decided to let that aid in. More on this volte-face can be found here: “Exclusive: Assad approved Syria quake aid with a UAE nudge, sources say,” by Laila Bassam, Ghaida Ghantous, Maya Gebeily and Tom Perry, Reuters, February 23, 2023:
President Bashar al-Assad ceded to calls for more aid access to Syria’s northwest with prodding from the United Arab Emirates, sources say, a diplomatic win for the Gulf state which has rebuilt ties with Damascus despite US disapproval….
The UAE recently renewed ties with Syria, even inviting Assad to visit Abu Dhabi. It did so for two reasons. First, the UAE’s leaders have recognized reality – Assad has won his civil war, even if pockets of resistance to his rule can still be found in Idlib Province. Second, the UAE, and other Arab states following the UAE’s lead, are starting to make overtures to Damascus. Having cut relations with Syria when the civil war began, they are now ready to renew them, in an attempt to bring him back into the Arab fold, and to pull him away from the orbit of the Sunni Arabs’ mortal enemy, Iran.
The UAE’s role in persuading Assad, described by four sources in the region, suggests it has started to carve out a degree of sway in Damascus, even if Russia and Shi’ite Iran remain the dominant foreign players there….
But Assad, having — mostly — won his war, no longer has as much need of the Russian and Iranian military aid that once proved so critical to his regime’s survival. What he needs now is hundreds of billions of dollars in aid to help rebuild his devastated country. Some say it will take $400 billion to put Syria back in the condition it was in in 2011, just before the civil war broke out. Neither Russia nor Iran is in any condition to provide financial aid to Syria. But the rich Sunni states of the Gulf – especially the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar – do have that kind of money, and if Syria responds to their overtures, their aid, while it won’t make Syria whole, could make a big difference. But they won’t be forthcoming unless Assad makes a clean break with Tehran.
The senior source familiar with Syrian government thinking said that the UAE role in persuading Assad should not be underestimated.
The role of the UAE was absolutely critical in persuading Assad to change his mind about letting in aid. Assad reversed course just as soon as the UAE’s Sheik Abdullah spoke to him about the need for humanitarian aid to be delivered to northwestern Syria without further delay. The day after Assad spoke to Sheikh Abdullah, he informed Martin Griffiths, the UN aid chief, that the aid could now come in. Griffiths then told the world.
A Syrian source close to the Gulf said the UAE had used its “soft power” on Assad and a Turkish official also said the UAE had played a part in persuading him….
“Soft power”? It was, of course, “all about the Benjamins.” Does that count as “soft power”? Isn’t money — its absence or its presence — just as “hard” a weapon as tanks and planes? Assad knows that he’ll need the deep-pocketed UAE, and the other Sunni Arab states of the Gulf, to help rebuild his devastated country, still under the rubble which more than a decade of savage civil war has produced.
A Russian diplomatic source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Russia would have blocked a resolution authorizing expanded aid access from Turkey.
However, a Western diplomat, a UN official and a Syrian source with knowledge of discussions said Russia had signaled to Assad that it would not be in a position to veto such a resolution given international pressure on getting aid in….
Russia at first tried to run interference for Syria in the Security Council, claiming there was no need for additional access into Syria to supply humanitarian aid. But the Russians in the end admitted they didn’t dare veto a resolution calling for more access; the outrage with Moscow would have been too great. In any case, the resolution did not go forward because there was no need, once Syria announced it was opening all access routes into northwestern Syria.
A Gulf source said the disaster had created “earthquake diplomacy” that was pushing forward openness towards Damascus and cooperation on the humanitarian crisis.
“Assad spent the last 11 to 12 years looking towards Moscow and Tehran, and now he is back reaching out to his Arab neighbors,” the source said.
It’s not Iran nor Russia that are in a position to supply humanitarian aid at this point. Syria will let in Western aid. But most of the aid now allowed in is likely to come from the deep-pocketed Arab states that hope to renew their ties with Damascus.
Washington has voiced opposition to any moves towards rehabilitating or normalizing ties with Assad, citing his government’s brutality during the conflict and the need to see progress towards a political solution. US sanctions are a big complication for countries seeking to expand commercial ties.
But surely the Bidenites don’t want to prevent aid from getting to earthquake victims in Syria. Washington can’t prevent the Arabs from attempting to improve their ties with Syria, hoping thereby to persuade Damascus to downgrade its relations with Iran. Any further isolation of Iran – even if it is only the loss of its Syrian ally — is in America’s interest.
Saudi Arabia, which remains at odds with Assad, has said consensus was building in the Arab world that isolating Syria was not working and that dialog with Damascus was needed at some point to at least address humanitarian issues.
The UAE official said there was an “urgent need to strengthen the Arab role in Syria.”
The Gulf Arab states would like to help with humanitarian aid to Syria, not only as a worthy goal in itself, but also as part of a developing effort to bring Syria back into the Arab fold, and pulling it away from Iran’s orbit. Furthermore, once that has been accomplished, Iran would no longer be able to have bases in Syria; the Arab states would demand their closure in exchange for the promise of financial aid to Damascus. Those bases have long been used by Tehran as convenient way stations, where weapons are stored, and some even manufactured, for delivery to Iran’s ally Hezbollah in Lebanon. If those bases are closed down, Hezbollah will be cut off from Iran’s supply of weapons, and its opponents in Lebanon – the Christians, the Shi’a, the Druze, and even anti-Hezbollah Shia – may then be prepared to stand up to Nasrallah and his fighters, especially if they are supplied with money and weapons by the Gulf Arab states. With Hezbollah cut down to size, Lebanon, like Syria, can be brought back into the Arab fold, and Iran, now deprived of its bases in Syria and its former domination, through its proxy Hezbollah, of Lebanon, will be completely isolated in the Middle East. That’s a consummation devoutly to be wished.