epa07417798 United Arab Emirates Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (R) speaks during a press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (L) at the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, 06 March 2019. Lavrov is on a five-day regional tour that also took him to Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait for talks on the situation in Yemen, Syria, as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  EPA/ALI HAIDER
United Arab Emirates Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan speaks during a press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey LavShow more

Arab nations must be part of Syria’s future

The UAE has confirmed its intention to "ensure Syria returns to the Arab region", in the words of Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. On Wednesday, during a joint press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Sheikh Abdullah shed light on the country's decision to re-open its embassy in Damascus last December. Simply put, this gesture was not intended to legitimise Bashar Al Assad's continued rule after years of war, nor to condone the actions of his regime, but rather to ensure Arab voices are heard in discussions about Syria's future.

With Mr Al Assad reclaiming almost all Syrian territory, a new phase has begun in the seven-year war. And with different powers vying for influence, Arab states are determined to protect Syria’s territorial integrity.

ISIS has been all but defeated in Eastern Syria. All that is left of the so-called caliphate is the tiny pocket of Baghouz, where the terror group is fighting its last battle against the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces. The US-led international coalition has hastened the group's demise and provided the SDF with support and protection. But given President Donald Trump's clear intention to withdraw most – if not all – US troops from Syria, a power vacuum is bound to open, into which various regional actors will certainly hope to lurch.

Russia has backed Mr Al Assad for years with military intervention and is partly responsible for keeping him in power. Meanwhile, Iran-backed forces, including Lebanese Hezbollah, have fought alongside the regime, expanding Tehran’s influence in the country. Turkey, too, has become a key belligerent, taking military action against the Kurds in northern Syria.

Arab nations must ensure their voices are heard in postwar Syria. Otherwise, distant powers are bound to cement their influence over the divided country, undermining peace efforts and Syrian sovereignty and possibly exacerbating ethnic, religious and political divides.

Damascus was expelled from the Arab League in 2011 for its brutal response to protests, a gesture that failed to halt the nation's descent into war. Today, Arab nations are considering Syria’s readmission to the League – an effort that is not intended to normalise relations with Mr Al Assad, but to open possible avenues for stabilising the country.

The UAE's decision to reopen its embassy in Damascus constituted a step towards stabilisation, in the form a benevolent diplomatic presence in a country beset by rival powers seeking their own interests.

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