UAE calls for new approach to Syria - analysis

UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash is seen during preparatory meeting for the GCC, Arab and Islamic summits in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, May 29, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/WALEED ALI)
UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash is seen during preparatory meeting for the GCC, Arab and Islamic summits in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, May 29, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS/WALEED ALI)
Anwar Gargash, the United Arab Emirates Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, has declared that a solution to the crisis in Syria needs a new approach. “Violence cannot continue in its ugliest form, as if it were normal news. The Arab approach and role is necessary to end the violence and fighting through a realistic and pragmatic vision.”

The tweet came as the US presidency was heading toward Joe Biden and also as reports indicated that the US envoy for Syria engagement, James Jeffrey, may be leaving his post.

The US approach to Syria has been complex and has also been complicated by competing desires in Washington to confront the Assad regime, Russia and Iran, while defeating ISIS and pleasing Turkey. It has led to the US changing its policies often and seeming to appease Turkey’s aggression while letting Russia and Iran work with Ankara to undermine the successful US role in eastern Syria.

Meanwhile, the Russia- and Iranian-backed Assad regime continues to bomb Idlib and consolidate control after almost ten years of war.

Gargash is a prominent voice in the UAE, a key to Abu Dhabi’s foreign policy over the years and the Emirates’ attempt to create an alliance against extremism in the region. That has tended to mean confronting the Muslim Brotherhood, which is linked to Hamas in Gaza and the ruling AK Party in Turkey, as well as confronting Iran’s aggression and Hezbollah.

This emerging alliance system has pushed for stability after years of war. It is in contrast with the policies of Qatar, Turkey and others. The “Arab approach” to Syria would be in line with the Arab League and other regional agreements and appears to confront the attempt by Iran and Turkey to take over Syria and partition it between themselves.

The UAE minister called for a “realistic and pragmatic vision.” He wrote that without it, “the conflict will continue over brotherly Syria.”

Syria has been deeply divided, with control of the eastern portion under the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, while the Assad regime controls the center and Turkey controls the north.

The war caused millions to become refugees in Jordan and Turkey and Turkey’s invasion of Afrin in 2018 and northern Syria in October 2019 forced more than 250,000 people, mostly Kurds, to also become refugees.

The destabilization in Syria has also fed extremism. Turkish-backed groups have appeared to welcome extremists who attack churches, and Yazidis and others and Turkey has exploited poor Syrians to fight in Azerbaijan and Libya. The US has targeted Al-Qaeda members who are active in the Turkish occupied portion of northern Syria.

Meanwhile, Iran is setting down roots near Albukamal, Deir Ezzor and the Golan, recruiting locals and setting up bases. Iran’s militias, some tied to Iraq, are also destabilizing Syria and displacing people.  

An Arab approach to Syria could put Syrians first, rather than the goals of Ankara, Tehran and others and this could also lead to more moderate voices and groups, such as the tribes near the Euphrates, playing a role. It is unclear what the US intends to do in eastern Syria.

The Trump administration vowed three times to leave Syria, but the US role has been successful at stabilizing the area and defeating ISIS and this has brought stability to Iraq as well. If America leaves, it is unclear if that stability will be maintained, since Iranian-backed and Turkey-backed groups are today responsible for many violations in Syria.