Syria: A new dimension to the conflict
The Syrian civil war is now in its tenth year and has long been a battleground for competing visions of the regional order. Burgeoning geopolitical competition between Ankara and Abu Dhabi now increasingly plays out in Syria, drawing the country into broader eastern Mediterranean dynamics.
In many respects, the United Arab Emirates – unlike Saudi Arabia – never fully embraced the Syrian opposition. But, as the uprising became more violent and Islamist, it increasingly concerned the Emiratis due to their preference for non-Islamist, authoritarian stability. As Turkey has consolidated its position in northern Syria over recent years and established a direct territorial presence there, Abu Dhabi has also grown increasingly wary of Ankara’s widening influence. Abu Dhabi has provided some economic support to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in north-eastern Syria, seeing the group as a vehicle through which to resist Turkish influence. But this approach has been superseded by a clear Emirati strategy of re-engagement with the Assad government, marked by the re-establishment of diplomatic ties in December 2018 and a publicly announced telephone call between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Bashar al-Assad in March 2020. While the United States has threatened to impose sanctions on the UAE if it becomes more involved in Syria, Abu Dhabi clearly wants to move back in, seeing the consolidation of Assad’s position as a way to dilute Turkish influence and cement a favourable regional order. Some reports suggest that the UAE has encouraged Assad to break the Russian-mediated ceasefire in north-western Syria to confront Turkey.
As part of this wider dynamic, the link between the conflicts in Syria and Libya has become increasingly pronounced. Over recent months, Assad has established diplomatic ties with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who is based in eastern Libya. It seems unlikely that the UAE played no role in brokering this accord given its strong influence over Haftar, its renewed ties with Assad, and all three parties’ desire to counter Turkish influence. This diplomatic renewal has fed into direct military linkages between the two conflicts. Both sides of the Syrian conflict now supply fighters to the respective camps in Libya: Turkey has transported Syrian fighters to Tripoli to support the internationally recognised Government of National Accord, which is based in western Libya. Meanwhile, Russia has facilitated the transfer of fighters from southern Syria – many of whom previously opposed Assad – to Haftar’s side. These Syrians are heading to Libya out of financial ambition rather than ideological affinity, but this highlights the manner in which conflicts across the eastern Mediterranean have become increasingly intertwined. It also highlights the extent to which Turkish-Russian competition is emerging as a defining element of these conflicts, with the two countries now providing key external support to opposing camps in both Syria and Libya.
For Europeans, meanwhile, Syria – an arena in which they have been increasingly marginalised – represents an increasingly uncertain area of both cooperation and unhappiness with Turkey. The two sides broadly share a common position on Syria: Ankara, like many European capitals, remains steadfast in its opposition to Assad. Key European states, led by France, oppose Emirati attempts to re-engage with Assad, despite French-Emirati alignment on wider eastern Mediterranean issues. Turkey and the European Union have also inked a significant refugee deal that is of critical importance to countries such as Germany. But the agreement is a source of increasing acrimony between the two sides: Europeans feel that Turkey is blackmailing them on the issue. Europeans have also expressed unease with the nature of some of the Syrian opposition groups backed by Ankara, and have actively opposed Turkey’s military incursions into north-eastern Syria, which targeted the Western-backed Kurdish elements of the SDF.
For its part, Turkey now fears that states such as Greece will look to re-engage with the Syrian government, not so much out of a desire to re-legitimise Assad but to further challenge the Turkish position. For several EU member states, wider eastern Mediterranean interests – including relations with Turkey and energy matters – may become more important than maintaining the long-standing EU position on Syria.