x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Syria top of the agenda for US vice president’s UAE visit

US Vice President Joe Biden will visit the UAE on Saturday where he will meet the country’s leaders in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

US vice president Joe Biden will visit the UAE on Saturday where he will meet the country’s leaders. Mandel Ngan / AFP
US vice president Joe Biden will visit the UAE on Saturday where he will meet the country’s leaders. Mandel Ngan / AFP

ABU DHABI // US vice president Joe Biden will visit the UAE this weekend to meet the country’s leaders in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Mr Biden and his wife, Jill, will fly from Washington to the UAE on Saturday then travel to Jerusalem and to Ramallah in the West Bank for meetings on Tuesday with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the president Reuven Rivlin, and the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.

His final stop will be in Amman, where he will meet King Abdullah II to discuss ISIL and the civil war in Syria. He is also expected to visit a US-Jordanian military training camp.

Analysts said the vice president’s trip comes at an “interesting” time, with the administration of president Barack Obama nearing the end of its term.

“It will probably choose to leave any important decisions for the incoming leadership,” said Sabahat Khan, senior analyst at the Dubai-based think tank Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.

“However, the regional situation is evolving rapidly and almost all of America’s regional allies are upset with Washington’s positions on a range of regional issues, especially the Syrian civil war.”

Mr Khan said he anticipated Syria will be the focus of discussions as it ties many other issues such as Iran, Hizbollah and ISIL. “Undoubtedly, Biden will hear complaints and get a pulse on the ground before he returns to Washington,” Mr Khan said. “All of this might prove useful in pressing the US to expand and speed up military support and better balance its diplomatic efforts with Russia, because the perception is that its Plan A and B for Syria failed some time back and Plan C is failing now as well.”

Last month, the UAE Ambassador to the US, Yousef Al Otaiba, described the Syrian conflict as “the only game in town” with no other strategy in sight.

“Biden’s greatest interest is foreign policy,” said Dr Albadr Al Shateri, adjunct professor at the National Defence College.

“His visit is probably to have all the allies on the same wavelength regarding Syria. Biden was promoting the idea of soft partitioning of Iraq. He could [potentially] be advocating for a federation for Syria where the Alawis, Kurds and the Druz will have their own autonomous region.”Before assuming the vice presidency in 2009, Mr Biden served as chairman of the senate foreign relations committee.

“He struck a deal with the president that he will be involved in all foreign policy issues,” Dr Al Shateri said. “He played a significant role in hot spots from Iraq to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Palestine.”

Other potential areas of discussion include ISIL. “The Saudis are taking the lead on this and the Ra’ad Al Shamal, or Northern Thunder military exercise, is part of the preparation for the bigger political manoeuvre to oust Bashar [Al Assad] and cut [ISIL] to size,” he said. “Biden probably wants to have all ducks in a row for such eventualities.”

Dr Theodore Karasik, senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics, said topics would be centred not only on the fight against ISIL, but on issues regarding Palestine.

“This effort by the US vice president comes at an important juncture in the heart of the region as the next phase of the war for Syria enters a new stage,” he said.

“The outcome is coordination on what comes next as all issues are interconnected.”

US analysts said Mr Biden may want to confer with the UAE leadership about the situation in Syria, assess the state of the ceasefire, and discuss policy options given different scenarios.

“There have been a lot of reports that the Russians, the Iranians and the Assad regime are using force in certain places, [although] not as much as before,” said Mark Katz, professor of government and politics at the School of Policy, Government and International Affairs at George Mason University. “So, the question is at what point do those supporting the opposition decide that they need to continue to do so, and my sense is that the Obama administration will want to give the ceasefire a chance.”

He said discussing the GCC’s labelling of Hizbollah as a terrorist organisation and what further actions should be taken against it could be on the agenda.

“He [Mr Biden] would also want to reassure the UAE that the Iranian nuclear accord has not resulted in Washington becoming unaware that Iran’s regional policies are a matter of great concern to America as well as the Gulf,” Mr Katz said. “He is likely to argue that even so, an Iran subject to the constraints of the nuclear accord is better than an Iran not subject to any such constraints.”

cmalek@thenational.ae