Syria’s government has mostly been triumphant in its gruesome civil war. In addition to its victories on the battlefield, Damascus has also begun to achieve success in global diplomacy. Regionally, more Arab states are re-engaging Damascus. At this juncture, President Bashar al-Assad’s government is finding a special supporter in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which had cut off official ties with Damascus early on in the conflict but restored them a year ago. Earlier this month, Abdul-Hakim Naimi, the UAE’s charge d'affaires to Syria, stated, “I hope that safety, security and stability in the Syrian Arab Republic will prevail under the shadow of the wise leadership of Dr. Bashar al-Assad.” Naimi also hailed the UAE and Syria’s “durable, special, and powerful” relationship.
When looking at what Emirati interests have driven Abu Dhabi to re-embrace Assad’s government so openly, there are numerous factors in play. To begin, it is important to realize that the UAE—at least compared to Saudi Arabia and Qatar—was never so adamant about ousting Syria’s Ba’athist regime. As the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member-state most opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood as a regional force, officials in Abu Dhabi—for all their disagreements with Assad’s government on a host of portfolios (Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah, etc.)—understood that the Syrian regime’s collapse would have likely benefited the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
According to Turkish media reports, the UAE even coordinated with Damascus to help the Syrian Arab Army kill certain leaders of anti-Assad groups in the civil war during the 2012-2014 period, such as Zahran Alloush, Hassan Aboud, Khalid Al-Suri, and Abdel Qadwr Saleh. Additionally, throughout the Syrian civil war it’s been no secret that the Emiratis have kept their doors open to wealthy Syrian businessmen tied to the regime and members of the Assad family.
From the beginning of the Arab Spring, the UAE’s leadership hated the revolutionary activism and uprisings that shook the region. Today, Abu Dhabi views Assad’s regime as a survivor. Having witnessed UAE-allied governments in Tunis and Cairo fall in 2011 during a wave of popular uprisings that resulted in local Islamist parties gaining power, Emirati officials had little interest in seeing a Sunni Islamist order taking control of Damascus. Currently, in the post-Arab Spring period, the UAE promotes an anti-Muslim Brotherhood model of “authoritarian stability” in the Middle East, underscored its support for “secular” strongmen in Cairo and eastern Libya.
Within this context, it is not difficult to see how the Emirati leadership has been rather willing to re-accept the legitimacy of Assad’s regime under this banner of countering “terrorism” and “extremism.” Indeed, the Damascus regime’s vitriol for the Muslim Brotherhood places Syria’s government and the UAE in the same boat, at least concerning political Islam.
The “Neo-Ottoman” Factor
Turkey’s role in the Syrian crisis also helps explain Abu Dhabi’s pro-Assad position. The Emirati perspective is that Turkey’s ambitious foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa constitutes a grave threat not only to the UAE’s interests, but to those of the Arab region at large. This thinking has contributed to an Emirati belief that supporting the Damascus regime is a necessary step for Arab states to take in order to counter this supposed “neo-Ottoman” threat. To be sure, Syria is not the only theater where the Emiratis and Turks find themselves in a strategic clash. From the Libyan civil war to the Qatar crisis and Sudan’s transition to civilian rule, the UAE and Turkey are pitted against each other and competing to gain greater influence at the other’s expense.
Regarding Syria’s future, Abu Dhabi hopes to see the Assad government reintegrate into the Arab world so that Arab states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the UAE can establish a solid front against Ankara’s ambitious foreign policy. The Emirati view is that Turkey has capitalized on major divisions within the Arab region for its own benefit, and with Abu Dhabi working to bring Syria back from the cold nearly nine years after it was suspended from the Arab League, the UAE can play a pivotal role in minimizing the Arab region’s internal divisions to the detriment of Turkey’s agenda.
Reconstruction and financial interests also weigh into the Emirati leadership’s thinking. Given the potential for outsiders to profit significantly from Syrian reconstruction, the UAE—along with China and others—is eyeing such opportunities. Abu Dhabi is attempting to use its investment power in the domain of reconstruction to entice Syria away from Turkey and Iran.
In fact, a few months before the UAE re-opened its diplomatic mission in Damascus a year ago, Emirati officials paid visits to Syria to discuss their country’s role as an investor in post-war reconstruction. Of course, Russia wants wealthy Arab Gulf states to reach into their deep pockets to finance the reconstruction, as the Russians lack the resources to do this on their own, which brings us to the significance of the strengthening Abu Dhabi-Moscow partnership.
The recent changes in Abu Dhabi’s relationship with Syria must be understood within a wider geopolitical context whereby more Arab states, including the UAE, are catering to Russian interests to further their own. This trend is not new. After Russia intensified its direct military intervention in Syria in 2015, the UAE (unlike Saudi Arabia) did not officially oppose Moscow’s moves, and early on the Emirati leadership made it clear that Abu Dhabi could accept a solution to the Syrian crisis that left Assad in power.
Throughout Donald Trump’s presidency, a number of events in the region have prompted Abu Dhabi to become more wary of relying on the United States so heavily as a security guarantor. Notably, the Trump administration’s lack of a strong response to the September 2019 Aramco attacks and the U.S. president’s decision to “abandon” the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northeast Syria the following month unsettled numerous Arab states in the region that rely on the U.S. for their defense. These dynamics are prompting more countries such as the UAE (and even Saudi Arabia) to turn closer to Moscow with the hope of diversifying their alliances and partnerships at a time in which Washington is seen as increasingly unreliable from a national security standpoint.
Thus, as Russia’s power (both perceived and real) increases in the region, more of Washington’s historic Arab allies find themselves between the U.S. and Russia geopolitically. To be sure, with the U.S. imposing new sanctions on Damascus, the UAE is being pressured from the West to slow down its efforts to help Damascus reintegrate into the Arab region’s diplomatic fold. Nonetheless, while looking ahead, the fading influence of the U.S. in the Middle East is creating a void that Russia will continue working to fill. The odds are good that Moscow will use its growing clout to pressure more Arab states to re-engage Syria and re-open diplomatic missions in Damascus. There is every reason to bet that the UAE, given Abu Dhabi’s interests, will continue its lead role among Arab states in terms of facilitating this process to boost Assad’s standing in the greater Middle East.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a geopolitical risk consultancy based in Washington, DC. He is also an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Georgetown University, and an Adjunct Fellow at the American Security Project.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (Wikimedia Commons)
MUNICH, GERMANY — If U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris dominated the first day of the Munich Security Conference with her remarks, today it was German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s turn.
It was not only Zelensky who understandably devoted his whole speech to the Ukraine War but also Scholz, too. The German Chancellor, while boasting that his country will devote 2% of its GDP to defense expenditures this year, remarked that “we Europeans need to do much more for our security now and in the future.”
In a brief but clear reference to Trump’s recent statements on NATO, Scholz said, "any relativization of NATO’s mutual defense guarantee will only benefit those who, just like Putin, want to weaken us.” On the guns and butter debate, which is particularly relevant in Germany due to negligible economic growth, Scholz acknowledged that critical voices are saying, “should not we be using the money for other things?” But he chose not to engage in this debate, noting instead that “Moscow is fanning the flames of such doubts with targeted disinformation campaigns and with propaganda on social media.”
The Russian capture of the city represents the most significant defeat for Ukraine since the failure of its counter-offensive last year. On the loss of Avdiivka, Zelensky said that Ukraine had lost one soldier for every seven soldiers who have died on the Russian side. This, however, is difficult to reconcile with the reports about the rushed Ukrainian retreat, with a Ukrainian soldier explaining that “the road to Avdiivka is littered with our corpses.”
Throughout his speech, Zelensky repeatedly referred to the importance of defending what he called the “rules-based world order” by defeating Russia. If there was one take-away that Zelensky wanted impressed on this audience: “Please do not ask Ukraine when the war will end. Ask yourself why is Putin still able to continue it.”
He also seemed to suggest that it was not a lack of available weapons and artillery but a willingness to give them over to Ukraine. “Dear friends, unfortunately keeping Ukraine in the artificial deficit of weapons, particularly in deficit of artillery and long-range capabilities, allows Putin to adapt to the current intensity of the war,” Zelenskyy said. “The self-weakening of democracy over time undermines our joint results.”
The future of NATO was one of the main topics of the day. European leaders were in agreement that Europe needs to spend more on defense, and occasionally appeared to compete with each other on who has spent the most on weapons delivered to Ukraine or in their national defense budgets.
With NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in attendance, one of the panels featured two of the most talked-about names to replace the Norwegian politician in the 75th-anniversary summit in Washington in July: EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. According to a report by the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, President Joseph Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken favor the German leader, but in Paris, London, and Berlin, the Dutch politician is preferred.
The participation of the Netherlands in the initial U.S.-UK joint strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen on Jan. 11 was read in some quarters as a sign of Rutte’s ambitions. The Netherlands was the only EU country to join these initial attacks.
A G7 meeting of foreign ministers also took place Saturday on the sidelines of the conference. In a press briefing that followed, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani — who currently presides the G7 — reiterated the group’s support for Ukraine. The current situation in the Red Sea, as is often the case in the West, was presented by Tajani as a topic divorced from the Gaza Strip. The Houthis started their campaign against ships in the Red Sea after the beginning of the war in Gaza, claiming they want to force an end to the conflict.
There is no certainty that the end of the war in Gaza would put an end to Houthi attacks, but presenting the situation in the Red Sea as being nothing but a threat to freedom of trade is considered by experts to be a a myopic approach.
Nevertheless, Italy will be in command of the new EU naval mission ASPIDES, to be deployed soon in the Red Sea. The mission is expected to be approved by the next meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers on Monday. When asked whether he could ensure that ASPIDES would remain a defensive mission, the Italian Foreign Minister said ASPIDES aims at defending merchant ships and that if drones or missiles are launched, they will be shot down, but no attacks will be conducted.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing and is being updated.
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Vice President Kamala Harris at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 16, 2024. (Lukas Barth-Tuttas/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY – The 60th year of the Munich Security Conference opened today with much of the early energy surrounding remarks by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The vice president noted that it was nearly two years since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She said that when Putin unleashed his troops along different fronts in February 2022, “many thought Kyiv would fall within a day.” It is also true, as she pointed out, that “Ukraine has regained more than half the territory Russia occupied at the start of the conflict.” (Russia held about 7% before the invasion, 27% right after, and about 18% today.)
However, by choosing the first months of the war as the starting point of her speech, Harris sought to avoid the obvious. Namely, that in the year that has gone by since her last visit to Munich, the Ukrainian army has been losing ground. Yet, her remarks regarding Ukraine today did not differ much from her speech in 2023.
Harris seemed dedicated to keeping to the administration’s recent script, which is warning against heralding in a new era of “isolationism,” referring to President Biden's likely presidential election opponent, Donald Trump.
As president Biden and I have made clear over the past three years, we are committed to pursue global engagement, to uphold international rules and norms, to defend democratic values at home and abroad, and to work with our allies and partners in pursuit of shared goals.
As I travel throughout my country and the world, it is clear to me: this approach makes America strong. And it keeps Americans safe.
Interestingly, the U.S. has been accused of thwarting "international rules and norms" in its unconditional support of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed upwards of 29,000 Palestinians, mostly of them civilians, since Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel and hostage-taking. Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, asked Harris whether a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine was achievable. Harris answered that “the short answer is yes… but we must then put the discussion in context, starting with October 7.” Not 1948, not 1967, but October 7, 2023.
Her prepared remarks on the situation were very brief, overall, saying:
In the Middle East, we are working to end the conflict that Hamas triggered on October 7th as soon as possible and ensure it ends in a way where Israel is secure, hostages are released, the humanitarian crisis is resolved, Hamas does not control Gaza, and Palestinians can enjoy their right to security, dignity, freedom, and self-determination.
This work — while we also work to counter aggression from Iran and its proxies, prevent regional escalation, and promote regional integration.
October 7 was the topic of a conference side event hosted by Brigadier-General Gal Hirsch, Israel’s Coordinator for Hostages and Missing. In his opening speech, he called for a Global War on Kidnapping inspired by George Bush’s War on Terror. Hirsch was short on the specifics, and Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz did not develop the concept further when he followed Hirsch at the podium. During the event, several hostages released during the short ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2023 described their harrowing experiences in captivity. Relatives of the remaining hostages accompanied them.
Meanwhile, in a morning event, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed how to increase defense spending in a time of economic stagnation. Mitsotakis, whose country has always spent significantly more than the expected 2% of the GDP required by NATO, stated that defense policy cannot be done on a budget. Lindner, meanwhile, remarked that Germany is on the way to spending 2% of its GDP on defense. Economic prosperity, the German Liberal minister noted, should avoid tradeoffs between social and defense policies. This is certainly a difficult equation to square since the German government just announced it was reviewing its forecast for GDP growth in 2024 from 1.3% down to 0.2%.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing.
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Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.