Syria: the view from the Gulf states

The Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have been key to shaping the Syrian uprising. However, while their desire to dislodge Syria from the Iranian orbit has been central to their efforts, this does not account for the full complexity of their interests.  

This essay forms part of an eight-part ECFR series exploring the regional responses, dynamics and ramifications of the Syrian uprising and civil war. These essays have been drawn together in the ECFR report – The regional struggle of Syria.

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The interests and policies of the Arab Gulf states towards the Syrian uprising are often seen exclusively through the prism of their desire to dislodge Syria from the Iranian orbit, an effort thought to have been punctuated by a series of miscalculations. But, while a key aim of Gulf policy in the region is to weaken Iran, this does not account for the full complexity of Gulf interests and ambitions in Syria. It both ignores variations between the approaches of each Gulf state, which are in part informed by sectarian biases and intra-Gulf rivalries, and glosses over tensions between short-term priorities and long-term geopolitical interests.

The Gulf states’ attempts to steer Damascus away from Tehran to bolster their regional standing is central to their approach in Syria. This derives from their long-term interest in countering Iranian power in the region, exerted over recent years through the so-called “resistance” axis which, uniting Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas, has played an important role in weakening Gulf regional influence. Gulf leaders believe that a new – Sunni — regime in Damascus will naturally ally itself with the Gulf states at Iran’s expense, particularly if they have helped establish the new order through financial and military support.

The potential demise of the pro-Iranian regime in Damascus offers the Gulf states the possibility of extending their regional influence. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in particular, believe that a friendly regime in Syria will give them influence over Shia-dominated Baghdad, over whom they have had little sway, but which is seen as a critical player in the regional balance of power. Iraq’s post-2003 alliance with Iran is perceived as one of the key reasons. for Tehran’s growing regional influence over the past decade. A Sunni state in Syria could serve to strengthen currently marginalised Iraqi Sunni forces, giving them – and their Gulf backers – greater influence in Baghdad. At the same time, regime change in Damascus would help the Gulf states bolster their standing in Lebanon, already economically dependent on the Gulf, by strengthening pro-Sunni Gulf actors at the expense of the dominant pro-Assad Hezbollah movement. For the Gulf States, the Syria conflict is thus a critical battle for control of a key pivot state in the region. Drawing Damascus away from the Iranian camp is seen as a way of cementing broader regional influence in the Levant, and reestablishing the more favorable regional balance of power that they lost following the US occupation of Iraq in 2003.

Cementing the long-established tribal links that span the region from the Gulf to Iraq, Syria, and Jordan are a further instrument and end of Gulf policy, often neglected by outside observes. Despite national borders, migrant tribes maintain strong relations with their regional relatives. Intermarriage involving Syrian tribal leaders and Gulf royals is not uncommon, as is the practice of calling upon prominent figures from the Gulf to solve tribal disputes. Syrian tribal members regularly travel to the Gulf for work, with some becoming naturalised citizens (especially in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia). These deep-rooted tribal bonds are often overlooked in analyses of the Gulf’s response to the Syrian uprising, but have emerged as important sources of political and financial influence that that the Gulf has effectively tapped into. If these links are effectively harnessed, this would represent an important tool of Gulf regional influence extending from Syria through to western Iraq and Jordan, in the form of a “tribal crescent.”

While these factors reflect the Gulf’s long-term interests in the region, more immediate short term interests that stem from recent regional developments are also important in explaining the Gulf’s approach to the conflict in Syria.

The Gulf states generally maintained a cautious tone during the first four months of the mass protests in Syria in 2011. Public statements were limited to calls for dialogue and an end to the violence, with mutual high-level visits between key Gulf and Syrian officials.  During this early stage Gulf leaders hoped that engagement with the regime would facilitate a peaceful solution, and, fearful of cementing a regional trend, were not set on seeing Assad ousted from power. As such they were not yet prepared to take a public position on the conflict.

But, as the Syrian regime escalated its military campaign and the number of casualties significantly increased – by July 2011 more than 1,400 people had been killed in successive government crackdowns — the tone changed. Qatar closed its embassy in Syria on 18 July, and the Saudi king, Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, gave a speech in August condemning the regime’s violence against Syrian citizens as one that could not “be justified by any reason”, and promptly recalled the Saudi ambassador (a move emulated by Bahrain and Kuwait). In November the Arab League, under strong Gulf pressure, placed sanctions on Syria.

Such a change in tack can be explained in part by the pressure mounting on the Saudi, Kuwaiti, and Bahraini governments at home, where citizens gathered in support of the Syrian uprising. The decisions by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait to withdraw their ambassadors from Syria were certainly a reaction to this show of public outrage and a bid to contain popular energy. But this also reflected their diplomatic failure to persuade Assad to appease the demonstrators. Even so, their diplomatic overtures did not yet mark a distinctive shift in support of the Syrian uprising.

Continued Gulf hesitation was in fact a reflection of a growing Gulf rapprochement with Damascus that had been taking place in the years immediately prior to the uprising. The rapprochement was unprecedented, considering Baathist Syria’s close ties to Iran, which had developed in the years following the 1979 revolution at the expense of Syria’s relationship with the Gulf. This was especially true given that over the last decade relations soured over Lebanon in particular, culminating in Assad being accused of the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri (a Saudi national and ally), which laid bare a long simmering split in Lebanese politics between the Gulf (and the West) on the one hand, and the Syria/ Iran/ Hezbollah alliance on the other. Relations then worsened, with a confident Assad seen as a survivor of the US-led invasion of Iraq, and the clout of the resistance axis on the ascendancy at the expense of the Saudi-led pro-Western Arabstates. (During the Israel/Lebanon conflict of 2006, Assad called Gulf leaders “half men” for their criticism of Hezbollah.)

Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia began to try to entice Syria away from Iran using diplomacy. As such, relations warmed considerably between 2009 and 2010, with Assad visiting Riyadh three times and the Saudi king visiting Damascus. Gulf investments in Syria reached record highs. At the same time Assad drew very close to Qatar, developing a strong personal and political relationship with the Emir, and working very closely together on a number of regional issues. It was these pre-uprising dynamics that helped to shape the Gulf’s early, constrained, approach to the uprising.

In this context, when the uprising first began, Gulf leaders felt that the time was ripe to finally pull Syria into their orbit. Saudi Arabia in particular took measures to draw Damascus away from the Iranian camp, while ensuring that the Syrian uprising did not spread across the region. However, the Gulf-Syria rapprochement was not yet sufficiently entrenched, and Assad rejected their overtures in favour of continuing to trust in Iran, given their long-standing alliance and an unwillingness to offer up meaningful domestic concessions. As violence escalated and the Assad regime showed no sign of compromise, Gulf leaders decisively changed tack and began to support the uprising openly. Saudi Arabia and Qatar began to work with others, including Turkey and France, to support the opposition with the direct goal of toppling the Assad regime.

However, instead of helping to build a real alternative to the Assad regime, Gulf support quickly revealed the vastly divergent approaches and interests of the Gulf States in the region. In particular, it served to intensify the rivalry between Riyadh and Doha, with each country supporting different groups within the opposition. This has led to a deepening fragmentation of the opposition’s political and military forces. Most recently, in May 2013, a critical opposition gathering in Istanbul aimed at rejuvenating the opposition council collapsed into discord as a result of a battle for control between Qatari and Saudi-backed factions.  

It is no secret that Qatar has for its part been a strong financial and political backer of the Muslim Brotherhood, pitting itself against its Gulf neighbours (mainly the UAE and Saudi Arabia, who have long distrusted the movement). Qatar’s alliance with the Brotherhood is part of its wider ambition to become a key regional actor. With roots in almost every country, the Muslim Brotherhood offers Doha access to an unrivalled regional network. In Syria, Qatar intends to use the influence of the Brotherhood to steer the transitional period, which is why it has consistently opposed any compromise or dialogue with the regime that might sideline Islamist forces, and sought to ensure continued Brotherhood domination of opposition bodies.

For Qatar, the optimal outcome is the complete downfall of the regime, with Brotherhood-dominated political and military bodies taking its place. However, they have also actively supported more radical, jihadi militants that have been the most effective groups in taking the fight to the Assad regime. In contrast, Saudi Arabia and its allies have been more cautious, fearful that the complete collapse of the Assad state apparatus will open the door to a takeover by these jihadi extremists, whose ideology commits them to the active establishment of an Islamic caliphate and who are therefore in turn likely to promote wider political agitation. Thus, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have complemented their focus on broader strategic ends, such as countering Iran’s influence, with a concern to counter the rising influence of radical Islamists and ensure that non-threatening groups steer any transition.

To do this, Riyadh has placed its bets on two types of Syrian rebels: Western allied non-Islamists (or ”moderates”); and Salafi-leaning forces, not seen as politically radical because their teachings call for loyalty to Muslim rulers. The Free Syrian Army (FSA), under the Military Supreme Command led by General Salim Idris, falls into the first category, and non-FSA Salafi groups such as Ahrar al-Sham fall into the second.

The Saudis and other Gulf states are also deeply suspicious of the Qatari-backed Muslim Brotherhood, and have worked to counter their influence. Saudi suspicion of the Brotherhood, described by the late Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz as the “source of all problems”, reflects historical antagonistic based on a deep apprehension of the radical political change advocated by Brotherhood-like Islamists. This has been exacerbated by the growth in the Brotherhood’s regional power in recent years, notably in post-Mubarak Egypt.

Today, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Western powers active in Syria, want a gradual and orderly regime change that preserves the state’s structure and agencies. This, however, was not always Riyadh’s desire. After its initial reluctance to support the uprising, Riyadh changed its position to advocating complete regime change through military means. As such, Riyadh never supported the mission of the first UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, and withdrew from the Arab League (AL) observer mission after it was extended (a move followed by the other Gulf countries). By mid-2012 Saudi Arabia started to shift its policy, as it became clear that Western powers were not interested in a Libya-style military intervention, and that hostile extremist forces were assuming a leading role in the battle against the regime.

Given its concerns, Saudi authorities have sought to crack down on ad hoc fundraising activities inside the Kingdom, and declared their support for a political solution to the crisis that effectively embraces a more cautious approach. For a while in 2012 Riyadh even declined meetings with the opposition, except during formal conferences. At the time the opposition was trying to reach out to them, frustrated by Qatar’s inability to convince Western powers to arm the rebels, a task they believed Riyadh would be better placed to achieve given its strong ties with the United States. This shift from front line support lasted for over four months, enabling Qatar to build significant influence within the opposition.

Towards the end of 2012, Riyadh actively returned to the scene, stepping up its support to select rebel groups, to counter the influence of jihadi groups and establish levers of influence. Riyadh also began to push the US to support the provision of better arms to the rebels, as a means of forcing Assad and Russia to accept some form of transition that would safeguard against full collapse and the consolidation of jihadi forces. Riyadh today backs Washington’s line and has declared an openness towards negotiations, although it insists that Iran cannot be part of the process. This openness stands in contrast to Qatar, which (along with Turkey) maintains a desire to see regime change at any cost, and which has shown little support for political initiatives, such as the Geneva II initiative backed by John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov, or concern with the rise of more radical jihadi forces.

Riyadh is now lined up behind the Supreme Military Council, headed by Salim Idris. While Idris, after his defection in July 2012, initially leaned towards the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar, he subsequently moved towards Riyadh, and has emerged as a central leader of so-called “moderate” rebels. Riyadh is also working with Jordan and the US, in addition to other Gulf States (minus Qatar and Oman), to provide lethal assistance to “moderate” rebel fighters in southern Syria. As a result the Saudis are now reported to have established strong influence in the south, from the Jordanian border across to eastern Syria. Qatar’s influence is strongest in the North, with groups like the Brotherhood-linked Liwaa al-Tawhid in Aleppo and Ahfad al-Rasoul in Idlib. Meanwhile, Riyadh has also built influence with moderate forces within the political opposition, and has successfully pushed to expand the Syrian National Coalition’s representation to include more secular and minority figures, thereby diluting the influence of the Qatari-backed Brotherhood. For its part, Doha is coming under growing fire from some Syrian opposition forces, along with neighbouring and Western governments, to tighten its control over the flow of arms to extremist forces and to weaken the Brotherhood’s influence in the Coalition.

Meanwhile, Gulf efforts to forge an effective Syria policy have also been complicated by the activities of private donors, particularly those in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. Private donors have largely been motivated by sectarian ambitions in the context of Sunni-Shia dynamics within the Gulf, and by tribal links between the Gulf and Syria, and they have been instrumental in supporting autonomous (often more hard-line and sectarian) rebel groups. These Gulf Shia-Sunni tensions are most pronounced in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, where early popular calls for action against Damascus were strongest.

So long as the conflict continues, these fundraising activities will remain hard to control, and authorities are growing fearful that they will open dangerous channels between Islamic radicals and rich donors across the region. For almost two decades, and particularly since 9/11, the Gulf States have taken steps to monitor financial flows from and into the Gulf in an attempt to prevent the emergence of radical networks. A protracted war in Syria clearly now poses a significant challenge on this front. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been more careful than other countries (such as Kuwait and Qatar) in trying to restrain these flows by requiring that humanitarian and military aid be delivered through official or semi-official channels. However, it remains a concern for authorities across the region, with significant domestic security implications.

The Gulf states’ interests and priorities in the region must be understood against the backdrop of these different dynamics, which have led to very divergent approaches on Syria. For the key Gulf players active in Syria – Saudi Arabia and Qatar – regime change in Syria represents a potential geo-political regional game changer. Renewed influence in Syria, and therefore Lebanon and Iraq, offers an opportunity to deal a significant blow to Iran’s regional standing – and that of the associated ‘resistance axis’ – and improve their position as regional power-brokers. The repositioning of the Palestinian Hamas movement away from the resistance axis and towards Qatar and Sunni regional powers, as a result of its recent break with Damascus, is just one sign of the hoped for regional reconfiguration. But clearly it is a mistake to reduce Gulf policies to merely being a derivative of an overarching desire to counter Iranian influence. Nor is it correct to perceive their approach in Syria as an extension of that in Libya, where the Gulf states successfully rallied international action to bring down Gaddafi. New realities in the Middle East, particularly the rise of Islamists with radical political agendas, are now playing an important role in shaping different policies towards Syria. Most critically, while Qatar has taken a leading role in supporting the rebels by all means necessary, Saudi Arabia is seeking to balance its desire to bring down Assad with the increasing dangers posed by the rise of radical Islam within the conflict.

Hassan Hassan is a staff columnist for The National newspaper in Abu Dhabi and a contributor to the Guardian, Foreign Policy, Qantara, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is from eastern Syria. Follow him on twitter @hhassan140

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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