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The Vast Dilema Of Assad's COP28 Invite
Weaponising climate politics? Or ensuring climate action unity?
The United Arab Emirates is hosting the next global climate change conference, COP28, and has controversially invited Syrian dictator-president Bashar al-Assad. This move has been denounced by many Western leaders, given the horror of the Syrian civil war driven by Assad and his deplorable war crimes against his own civilians. But, some within the climate action community see this as an opportunity to strengthen global cohesion to fight climate change. So, why did the UAE invite Assad? Can Assad’s presence really enhance COP28? Or is something else going on?
Let’s start with who Assad is and why the West is shocked at his invitation to COP28. Bashar al-Assad took the presidency of Syria from his Father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000 after his death. So, Bashar is a full-blown nepotist dictator. In Mach 2011, the Syrian civil war broke out. After years of horrific droughts, a dramatically declining economy, limited water supplies, massive levels of unemployment, widespread corruption and basically no political freedom, the people of Syria were fed up. The civil war started as protests, then devolved into full-on war against Syria’s military as Assad tried to crack down.
Syria rebels got funding and backing and were able to take a vast amount of land from Assad. Then Assad struck back hard. He launched massive air strikes and chemical attacks, basically indiscriminately. The use of these chemical weapons is a war crime, and what’s more, these attacks didn’t target the rebels, and a huge number of innocent civilians, including children, were killed, maimed and put through horrific levels of pain. But it doesn’t end there. The UN found “widespread and systematic human rights violations by Syrian security and military forces,” these include murder, enforced disappearances, torture and deprivation of liberty. This war hasn’t ended, either. Assad is still the Syrian president and retains power over 70% of Syria by area, while the Syrian Coalition (a coalition of the Syrian rebel factions) holds the rest. So far, more than 300,000 innocent civilians have been killed, and millions more have been displaced.
The West couldn’t stand idly by and let Assad’s brutal regime continue without retaliation. Massive sanctions were placed against Syria, and embassies were closed, isolating Assad. Then, countries like the US armed the Syrian rebels as a subversive way to undermine his government and bring him to justice. As of 2017, though, the US decided to change its stance and not force Assad from power.
As such, almost the entire developed world not only denounces Assad and his government, but does not want to legitimise it by engaging with them.
This is why many are furious that Assad is being invited to COP28, despite being a party to the UNFCCC (which started the COP summits) and a signatory of the Paris Agreement (a major international treaty developed and signed at COP21). For example, an unnamed US government official told Climate Home News it does not believe Assad should be welcomed into international forums at all, let alone the Leaders’ Summit at COP 28.
So, why did the UAE invite Assad to COP28? You might think that they want to ensure COP28 is a true global summit and that everyone, even those living under brutal regimes, are doing their part to save the planet, which would be noble. But dig a little deeper, and this doesn’t seem to be the case.
You see, it is highly beneficial to the UAE if Assad’s government is legitimised. Let me explain.
The Muslim Brotherhood Movement started in Egypt in 1928 and is a right-wing Sunni Islamist group. They have a complex history, but the UAE sees them as terrorists. This is because the UAE is predominantly Sunni Muslims too, and the Muslim Brotherhood Movement promotes a more far-reaching Sharia law than the UAE uses. This means that if the Muslim Brotherhood Movement gained traction in the UAE, it has the potential to gain massive traction and topple the current leadership. The Muslim Brotherhood Movement and other more extreme Muslim Ideologies are strong in Iran, which has supported Assad’s regime through the Syrian civil war. This means the Muslim Brotherhood has the ability to spread into Syria and then through the rest of the Middle East.
If the UAE can instead get Assad’s regime to cosy up to them and abandon, or at the very least, weaken its Iranian ties, they can keep groups like the Muslim Brotherhood away from their doorstep. This is why the UAE has offered Assad an olive branch to legitimise his government on the international stage.
It started small. In 2018, the UAE reopened its Syrian embassy, which triggered other countries to reopen theirs. But recently, the UAE has actively legitimised Assad. This month, Syria was readmitted to the Arab League, a regional organisation of 22 countries, after being forcibly kicked out 12 years ago. In fact, at the first meeting of the Arab League, Assad was invited to, Ukrainian President Zelensky was also in attendance. Given how strong Assad’s ties are to Putin, this must have been an interesting meeting.
As the UAE is hosting the upcoming COP28, they have yet another opportunity to further their legitimisation of Assad. After all, they can say that as a party signatory of the Paris Agreement and member of the UNFCCC, they deserve to be there. After all, Syria is a major oil producer, meaning they need to be part of the conversation around reaching net-zero. Indeed, the UAE has said they want to “have everyone in the room” in Dubai. But many have seen through this charade.
Joseph Daher, who is a Syria expert at the European University Institute, said the UAE has been consistently trying to normalise ties with the Syrian regime over the past few years to create stability in the region. Kristyan Benedict from Amnesty International said, “It’s part of an insidious normalisation process designed to maintain impunity for leaders across the region,” and went on to say, “millions of people who have fled Syria and had relatives detained, tortured and murdered, will be horrified by this PR gift to Assad.” The US and the UK have also criticised the Arab League’s decision to readmit Syria and Assad’s COP28 invitation.“Our position is clear: We are not going to be in the business of normalising relations with Assad and with that regime,” said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
So, why have these governments, charities and leaders condemned Assad’s COP28 invitation? The COP meetings are supposed to be a place where world leaders can agree on globally cohesive measures to save the planet, regardless of political positions. So, surely, Assad should have a seat at the table?
Well, the fact of the matter is that Assad has little ability to do anything to fight climate change. His government lacks the funding or ability to change its infrastructure to meet climate goals. What’s more, while their oil industry is a major support to the Syrian economy, it is minuscule on a global scale. They are at the whim of the global oil market; they don’t control it. This means that as the planet moves on from fossil fuels, Syria will naturally decarbonise itself to some extent. So actually, Syria offers very little to the progress of COP28.
In fact, they may actually have a negative impact. You see, Assad has a lot of interest in supporting the continued use of planet-destroying oil, as it keeps his regime ticking. The UAE has similar interests, as its economy is heavily reliant on oil. Having more of these oil-dependent nations at COP28 has the potential to undermine the necessary changes that need to be made to save the planet.
But, maybe there is something Syria can offer to COP28, a cautionary tale.
You see, recent studies have suggested that climate change is responsible for Syria’s civil war. Before the naughties, Syria was relatively prosperous, as it had fertile lands capable of producing vast amounts of staple crops. But the series of massive droughts in the early naughties changed that, and now the climate in Syria is dryer, making crop production far harder. These droughts caused the economic decline and water shortages that pushed the Syrian civilians to rise against Assad. And, you guessed it, these droughts happened because of climate change.
Similar climate-change-driven droughts will happen to most of the modern world in the decades to come. This includes the EU, USA, South America and even vast swathes of Asia. As such, Syria and Assad stand as a cautionary tale of what is to come and how not to control the situation.
So actually, Assad can offer a lot to COP28. He is a model example of the social, political and economic horrors that await the rest of us and why we must make significant changes to slow climate change.
So, the question has to be asked, should Assad go to COP28? I don’t think so. His story can be told without him being there. The data and science behind why the Syrian civil war happened and how badly Assad reacted to it are widely available and easily verifiable. But the UAE inviting him to COP28 and legitimising his brutal regime, all for the sake of mitigating a minor national security risk, is horrific. It sets a precedent for weaponising climate politics, which, in turn, will make our progress towards net-zero far less stable.