Oman’s reinstatement of envoy in Syria sign of evolving GCC position

Damascus: Oman has appointed an ambassador to Syria, becoming the first GCC state to restore full diplomatic ties with Syria. The ambassador, Turki Mahmoud Al Busaidi presented his credentials to Foreign Minister Walid Al Mouallem on Sunday, October 4.

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Throughout the course of the nine-year Syrian conflict, Oman has maintained cordial relations with Syria, receiving Moallem twice, first in March 2018 and then again last January, when he came to offer condolences on the passing of Sultan Qaboos Bin Saeed.

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“Oman actually never broke diplomatic relations with any country after 1970,” said Joseph Kechician, a Senior Fellow at the Riyadh-based King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies. Speaking to Gulf News, he explained that this was part of the new sultan’s desire to be fully engaged in the Levant, adding: “Oman is reminding everyone that Syria is and will remain part of the Arab World and that Syrians would not be abandoned. Of course, both Turkey and Iran are playing for keeps but they know, as do all Arabs, that foreigners cannot stay forever.”

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Libya factor

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The Omani move comes after several similar steps were taken by some other GCC states, all aimed at challenging both Iranian and Turkish influence in Syria. They all agree with Damascus on minimising Turkish influence in the Arab World, especially in Libya where Syria and most Gulf states are both supporting Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in his war against the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated government of Fayez Al Sarraj.

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Both Syria and most Gulf states consider the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation. Earlier this year, taking their que from the GCC, the Syrians re-opened the Libyan embassy in Damascus, recognising Haftar as the legitimate leader of Libya.

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They have also sent fighters to Libya, counterbalancing Syrian mercenaries who were shipped to Tripoli by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to fight alongside forces supporting the Al Sarraj administration, the Government of National Accord.

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Phased re-engagement

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In December 2018, the UAE took the lead in re-engagement, re-opening its embassy in Damascus, two months after Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid Al Khalifa was seen live on camera in New York warmly embracing his Syrian counterpart Al Mouallem.

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He then appeared on Al Arabiya TV, stressing the need to re-engage with Damascus while saying that it was inconceivable for Syria’s future to be in the hands of Turkey and Iran, two non-Arab states.

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In October 2019, most GCC states sharply condemned the Turkish invasion of northern Syria and earlier this year, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, got on the phone with President Bashar Al Assad, offering UAE support in combating COVID-19.

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Over the past month, three planes carrying aid from the UAE arrived in Damascus, where they were distributed to families in need through the Syrian Red Crescent.

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Last year, during a reception on UAE National Day, the UAE charge d’affaires Abdul Hakim Al Nouaimi said that the UAE was hoping to restore calm to Syria “under the wise leadership of President Bashar Al Assad”.

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Powerbroker

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“Despite its [size], Oman is an integral powerbroker in the region,” remarked Danny Mekki, a non-resident fellow at The Middle East Institute. Speaking to Gulf News he added: “This rapprochement could potentially pave the way for more Arab states engaging with Damascus as alliance systems switch in the Middle East to confront new threats.

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“Syria’s main aim is to restore ties with all GCC countries using the Turkish threat to the north as a key issue of mutual interest, Damascus has also been long-touted as rejoining the Arab League. Oman reinstating top diplomatic representation to the country will ease that process in many ways.”

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