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US pressures Gulf on Syria – ‘Isolate Assad’

DUBAI, Feb 18, (RTRS): 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 US 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 US 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 US 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. US and Saudi officials have spoken to representatives of other Gulf countries, urging them not to restore ties with Syria, three Gulf political sources, a US 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. 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 US 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.

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