By Stephen Starr, CNN Beirut Contributor
(CNN) — With rising tensions on the Syrian-Turkish border and Kurdish militias threatening to make gains in the war-ravaged region, it’s unusual to see a high-level international official from a country deeply involved in the region get so far away from it.
There’s some context: That high-level visitor is none other than the UAE’s Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash, who just arrived in Syria, according to an Emirati statement. The timing of Gargash’s visit is not very surprising, given there have been ongoing mediation efforts between the United States and the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad over Syria’s civil war.
A glimmer of hope for the war-ravaged country came in May when President Trump announced the US would pull out its remaining 2,000 troops, and discussed a way forward for Syria that would be peaceful and demilitarized. A Turkish air strike on Syria’s Afrin province killed 10 US special operations troops, though the Trump administration was quick to criticize Turkey’s attacks on Kurdish militia that Washington has been aiding in its fight against ISIS.
Despite all the tensions on the Syrian border, Qatar and Russia continue to support President Assad, while Iran is a major backer of Syria’s regime.
The UAE is supporting Arab efforts to destabilize Syria. That includes arming members of the Syrian Army that have defected from ISIS. The UAE has been a major supporter of armed opposition forces in Syria, while its coalition ally Saudi Arabia has been a major participant in US-led efforts to destroy ISIS, which it is also fighting with other Arab countries like Jordan. The Emirates and Saudi Arabia back the Syrian rebel forces, while Qatar is seen as working closely with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Gargash’s visit is the highest-profile Emirati visit to Syria since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011. His Majesty His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, was among the first official visitors to Syria. During a visit there in 2012, he said: “My country stands with you at this difficult time and there are no doubt that your fight against terrorism is the right path in this region and the world over.”
Anwar Gargash speaking in the Turkish Parliament after the April 2015 military invasion.
His comments were on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad being “the decisive figure in the fight against terrorism in Syria.”
The UAE has been accused of funneling weapons to the Syrian rebels and of using that support to foment a sectarian civil war, while Qatar has been accused of funneling financial support to al Qaeda.
The UAE Foreign Minister’s visit was not a secret, and unlike other delegations that have gone to Syria in recent months, Gargash will not be engaging in public warring with Assad. But since the UAE and Qatar are two countries with extensive trading links with Syria — the UAE has eight consulates in Syria and the vast majority of its oil is produced in that country — Gargash’s visit could have political implications as well.
His Majesty Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum called upon Syrian business leaders during his 2014 visit to Syria to “turbop with the UAE to make all the possible steps to improve the economic situation.”
While Gargash’s visit is likely to have no particular impact on the ongoing efforts to end the war, it’s an interesting first step in a political dialogue between the UAE and Syria.