The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi attempted to convince Syria to break the Idlib ceasefire as part of an elaborate plot to tie Turkey down in the area, sources have revealed to the London-based Middle East Eye. Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed not only tried to block the ceasefire deal between Turkey and Russia on 5 March, but also urged Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad repeatedly to break the agreement by relaunching his military offensive in the north-west province of Idlib.
Days prior to the meeting between Turkish and Russian officials in the Kremlin, Bin Zayed deployed a senior official, Ali Al-Shamsi, to Damascus to negotiate a deal with Assad. The sources familiar with the plan revealed that the prince offered $3 billion to Assad to revive the offensive on the last Syrian opposition-held stronghold. Apparently $1 billion was to be paid before the end of March, with $250 million reportedly being paid up front.
With the deal between the UAE and Syria being conducted in absolute secrecy, Abu Dhabi was allegedly concerned about Washington receiving word of the meeting. There was already tension between the two capitals due to the release of $700 million worth of frozen Iranian assets by the UAE in October last year, and America's support for Turkey's military retaliation against the Syrian regime.
Middle East Eye was told by one unnamed high-level source that, "During the Idlib clashes, Al-Shamsi met Bashar and asked him not to reach an agreement with Erdogan on a ceasefire. This happened just before Erdogan's meeting with Putin. Assad replied that he needs financial support." According to the source, the Syrian President told Al-Shamsi that, "Iran has stopped paying because they don't have cash, and the Russians don't pay anyway. So he asked for $5bn in direct support for Syria. They agreed on $3bn, $1bn paid before the end of March."
Following this agreement between Syria and the Gulf state, Assad set about rebuilding his forces in order to prepare for a renewed assault. His ally Russia, however, was monitoring the situation closely and heard about the confidential plan, leading to President Vladimir Putin sending Defence Minister Sergei Shoygu to Damascus to prevent Assad from following it through.
"The message Shoygu delivered was clear: 'We do not want you to restart this offensive. Russia wants the ceasefire to continue,'" the source continued. "Putin was furious."
By then, however, the UAE had already paid the first $250 million to Assad. A senior unnamed Turkish official confirmed the report of Abu Dhabi's offer to Damascus, saying that, "All I can say is that the content of the report is true."
The UAE's attempts to influence Syria and restart the Idlib offensive did not end there, though, as even after Shoygu's stern warning Abu Dhabi continued to urge Assad to follow through with the plan. It even sent some more of the agreed $1 billion to Syria as a further incentive.
Mohammed Bin Zayed's motives were reportedly part of a two-pronged attack against Turkey's influence in the region. First, he aimed to tie down Turkish forces in a long and bloody military conflict within north-east Syria, as was starting to be the case with Turkey's crushing military retaliation against Syrian regime forces following the killing of 34 Turkish soldiers.
Second, he wanted to stretch the Turkish army's resources and requirements to such an extent that it would distract it from the campaign in Libya, where it is assisting the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) against UAE ally Khalifa Haftar. This would, according to the Crown Prince's plan, have enabled Haftar finally to take control of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, where the GNA is based.
In the middle of all of this, Bin Zayed concocted a cover up to conceal the plan from the US. "The UAE did not tell the Americans," explained the source, "[and] became very concerned that the news will come out, especially after the fuss about the unfreezing of Iranian assets."
The prince then called Assad to ensure that the initial plan did not become known to the US, and provided the cover story that he had simply called to reassure Syria that the UAE is always prepared to support the country, particularly in the current coronavirus crisis. "I assured him of the support of the UAE and its willingness to help the Syrian people," wrote Bin Zayed on Twitter. "Humanitarian solidarity during trying times supersedes all matters, and Syria and her people will not stand alone."
I discussed with Syrian President Bashar Alassad updates on COVID-19. I assured him of the support of the UAE and its willingness to help the Syrian people. Humanitarian solidarity during trying times supersedes all matters, and Syria and her people will not stand alone.
— محمد بن زايد (@MohamedBinZayed) March 27, 2020
Although the UAE has shifted its support to Assad in recent years as the Syrian leader regained territorial control over much of the country, this revelation about Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince being the prime influencer behind the plan for a renewed assault on Idlib and the plot to tie down Turkey sheds new light on the situation. It also shifts the whole context of the conflict in terms of regional relations and power play.