Did UAE push Assad to break Idlib ceasefire?
Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, is making strenuous and persistent attempts to get Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to break a ceasefire with Turkish-backed rebels in Idlib province, Middle East Eye reports in its article Mohammed bin Zayed pushed Assad to break Idlib ceasefire. In recent months, Assad’s forces backed by Russian airpower made significant gains against rebel groups in Syria’s northwestern Idlib, killing hundreds and forcing a million civilians to flee towards the Turkish border in the process.
Turkey’s military intervened in February, helping balance the conflict until violence was stopped by a Moscow-brokered truce last month. However, MBZ both tried to prevent the ceasefire agreement between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan from being implemented, and has since called Assad to encourage him to re-launch his offensive, MEE has learned. Days before the ceasefire deal was struck in a four-and-a-half-hour meeting in the Kremlin on 5 March, the crown prince sent Ali al-Shamsi, the deputy of MBZ’s brother and national security adviser Tahnoun bin Zayed, to negotiate a deal with Assad in Damascus.
According to sources familiar with MBZ’s plan, the crown prince agreed to pay Assad $3bn to reignite the offensive against Idlib, the rebels’ last redoubt, $1bn of which was due to be paid before the end of March. By the time the ceasefire was announced, $250m had already been paid up front.
The deal was negotiated in the strictest secrecy. Abu Dhabi was particularly concerned that the Americans did not get to hear of it. Washington supported the Turkish military’s efforts to confront Assad’s forces in Idlib, and had already expressed its anger with the crown prince over the release of $700m of frozen Iranian assets in October. One high-level source told MEE: “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.
“He said 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,” the source added. When Assad started to rebuild his forces for a push on Turkish positions in Idlib, the Russians, who monitor military movements on the ground closely in Syria, got wind of the plan. “Putin was furious,” the source continued. Putin sent his defence minister, Sergei Shoygu, on an unplanned visit to Damascus to stop the Syrian government firing up the offensive again.
“The message Shoygu delivered was clear: ‘We do not want you to restart this offensive. Russia wants the ceasefire to continue.’ By then the Emiratis had already paid $250m to Damascus,” the source said.
A senior Turkish official has confirmed that the UAE made such an offer to the Syrian government. “All I can say is that the content of the report is true,” the official said. Sources told Middle East Eye that MBZ persisted in his attempts to get Assad to break the ceasefire even after Shoygu’s visit. A second tranche of the initial $1bn was delivered to Damascus.