The new US sanctions on Damascus are bad news for the UAE , but it could be a double-edged sword for the US.
much of their wealth during the darkest periods of the Syrian civil war. Also, in August 2018, a few months before the two governments’ official rapprochement, a major Emirati investor purportedly had plans for a project in Marota City which hediscussed
with Syria’s government. Despite the US and UAE’s close relationship, the Syrian file has fueled a degree of tension between Washington and Abu Dhabi. The American and Emirati governments do not agree on questions about Assad’s legitimacy and how to deal with the Damascus regime.
One of the reasons why Washington has embraced the Caesar Act as a strategy for advancing America interests in Syria has to do with the US goal of slowing down the rapprochements between Assad’s government and Arab states like the UAE. The day that the Caesar Act went into effect, US Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey
at a press conference about the sanctions’ implications for the UAE. He warned that Emirati individuals and businesses could be hit with sanctions if the UAE continues re-embracing Assad’s government. As Jeffreyput it, officials in Abu Dhabi are aware that Washington is “absolutely opposed” to Arab states re-opening their diplomatic missions in Syria, as the UAE and Bahrain did in December 2018, and some analysts believe Saudi Arabia will also do before too much longer.
“They’re sovereign countries; they can make these decisions. But we have made it clear that we think this is a bad idea.”Not seeing eye-to-eye on “Iranian threat”As Ramani argues, the Caesar Act will prevent the UAE from playing a significant role in Syria’s reconstruction, which Abu Dhabi saw as “a way of creating a Syrian state that would be less dependent on Iran and more equipped to resist future coercion from Turkey.”
Thus, although officials in Washington and Abu Dhabi both share concerns about Iranian influence in Syria and the Arab world at large, the US and UAE have different views about how to best counter Tehran’s hand. Looking ahead, officials in the UAE are considering how US foreign policy could change if former Vice President Joe Biden wins this year’s presidential election. If a Biden administration would conduct a foreign policy that is less UAE-friendly than the current administration’s, Ramani posits that the UAE would likely become “more cautious about trying to evade sanctions like it has done in Libya.”
Yet it would be mistaken to assume that the Caesar Act’s implementation will mark the end of the UAE’s quest to help Syria with major reconstruction efforts. The UAE has strong lobbying capabilities in Washington. Through such networks in the American capital, the UAE may have some luck in terms of pushing the US foreign policy establishment toward viewing the Caesar Act as more of a gift to Iran, rather than a way of undermining Tehran’s interests.
To that point, there seems to be good reason to expect the Iranians to successfully exploit the new US-imposed sanctions on Syria. Why is that? Without countries such as the UAE along with Kuwait, Malaysia, and Russia being able to involve themselves in any project in Syria without the fear of the Treasury Department going after them and cutting them off from US markets, the Syrian government will likely become even more dependent on Tehran, which has basically nothing to lose given the extent to which Iran is already choked by Washington’s sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
Perhaps officials in Washington will later conclude that by preventing the Emiratis and others from investing in Syria’s “post-war” economy, the Caesar Act ultimately paved the way for Iran to essentially become the only outside actor that Syria had the option of turning to for help with reconstruction.
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