FILE PHOTO: A picture of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is seen at a train station in Damascus, Syria, September 12, 2018. Picture taken September 12, 2018. REUTERS/Marko Djurica/File Photo
By Ghaida Ghantous and Michael Georgy
DUBAI (Reuters) – The United States is lobbying Gulf states to hold off restoring ties with Syria, including the UAE which has moved closer to Damascus to counter the influence of its rival Iran, five sources told Reuters.
The opposing approaches are an early test of whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad can gain political and diplomatic credibility after a nearly eight-year civil war turned him into an international pariah.
Many countries cut links with Syria at the start of the war.
Several Gulf states shut or downgraded their embassies, Syria was suspended from the Arab League, flights stopped and border crossings were closed. The United States and other countries imposed economic sanctions.
Washington, backed by Gulf countries Saudi Arabia and Qatar, does not want Syria welcomed back into the international community until a political process to end the war is agreed.
“The Saudis are quite helpful in pressing the others. Qatar also is doing the right thing,” said a U.S. official, when asked about the diplomatic pressure.
The official said that the United States was pleased that “some Gulf states are putting the brakes on”.
The U.S. position suggests that Assad is still a long way from being accepted, even after his forces reclaimed most of Syria through victories over Sunni rebels, thanks largely to help from Iran and Russia.
The lack of support from Washington and regional heavyweight Riyadh to end Syria’s isolation will make it harder for the devastated country to attract investment needed to rebuild it.
While the UAE believes Sunni Muslim states must embrace Syria swiftly in order to move Assad out of Shi’ite Iran’s orbit, Saudi Arabia and Qatar back the U.S. approach.
The UAE sees Assad as the “only option”, according to one Gulf source, and believes that stemming Iranian influence in Syria could help prevent the kind of hold it now has in Iraq.
During the war, the UAE did support armed groups opposed to Assad. But its role was less prominent than that of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and its support was mostly to do with ensuring that Islamist forces did not dominate the uprising.
U.S. and Saudi officials have spoken to representatives of other Gulf countries, urging them not to restore ties with Syria, three Gulf political sources, a U.S. official and a senior Western diplomat said.
They particularly want to ensure that those countries do not back Syria’s return to regional organisation the Arab League, and that embassies are kept closed or operating with only junior staffing.
“GAVE THEM FLAK”
With Assad strengthening his position militarily, relations with some countries have started to thaw. The UAE reopened its Damascus embassy in December.
This was a major boost for Assad, and the United States “gave the Emiratis flak”, said the U.S. official. A UAE official did not respond to a request for comment.
“In the last seven years there has been absolutely zero Arab influence in Syria. Zero Arab influence has been a disaster,” UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash told reporters in a recent briefing in Washington.
He said Abu Dhabi re-established diplomatic ties with Damascus to “be closer to the reality on the ground”.
Gargash said more Arab states need to engage “to crowd the space” taken by Russia and Iran, who support Assad, and Turkey, which backs the rebels.
The next step for Syria’s international rehabilitation could be reinstatement to the Arab League, which would be largely symbolic but something Assad’s government would likely use to show its return from the diplomatic wilderness.
The League said last Monday that there was not yet the necessary consensus for this to happen, and the United States is pushing hard to ensure it does not, according to the sources.
“Washington is lobbying against it and Saudi Arabia and Egypt are working to slow down the readmittance of Syria in the Arab League,” said the senior Western diplomat.
Government media offices in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman’s foreign ministry did not respond to a Reuters’ request for comment.
A Kuwaiti foreign ministry official declined to comment on whether Kuwait had been asked by Washington or Riyadh to hold off on normalising ties and reiterated the country’s stance that “any possible return of relations with it can only be through the Arab League”.
Not all Arab League nations severed ties with Syria after the outbreak of the war in 2011. Oman maintained diplomatic ties with Damascus. A day after the UAE reopened its embassy, Bahrain said its embassy in Damascus and the Syrian diplomatic mission in Manama had been operating “without interruption”.
Kuwait’s deputy foreign minister said in December it would reopen its embassy in Damascus once the Arab League allowed it.
Saudi Arabia has no plans now to normalise ties, said one Gulf official, adding “everything is suspended” until Syrians agree a transition from Assad’s rule.
Rival Qatar has said it sees no “encouraging” signs for restoring normal relations, its foreign minister said in January.
But Abu Dhabi hopes it can eventually sway Syria towards the business-friendly UAE model, and Dubai can play a role as a hub for trade with Syria.
Abu Dhabi last month hosted a Syrian delegation led by prominent businessman Mohammad Hamsho to discuss potential cooperation in trade, infrastructure, agriculture, tourism, logistics and renewable energy, state media reported.
Gargash acknowledged, however, that real investment would not happen without a political process.
A second senior Western diplomat said that without a U.N.-led political process it would be difficult for sanctions to be removed which would clear the way for investment.
“I don’t think this is the end of the war and time for reconstruction,” that diplomat said.
(Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay and Michelle Nichols in Washington, Tom Perry and Angus McDowall in Beirut, Aziz El Yaakoubi in Dubai, Stephen Kalin in Riyadh and Eric Knecht in Doha; Editing by Anna Willard)