The United States, the Gulf Arab states, and Israel face escalated threats, both rhetorical and real.
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Over the past few months Gulf states’ reengagement with Syria has gained momentum, reinforced by the hard reality of the May 26 reelection of President Bashar al-Assad to a new 7-year term. In early May, the head of Saudi intelligence, General Khalid al-Humaidan, met with his counterpart in Damascus and reportedly with Assad (although accounts differ about the level of the visit and the engagements in Damascus). Subsequently, there were unconfirmed reports the Saudis are close to reaching an agreement on diplomatic normalization with the Assad government. On March 26-27, Syrian Minister of Tourism Rami Martini led a Syrian delegation to the Middle East World Tourism Organization’s Committee for the Middle East meetings in Riyadh, the first Syrian visit to Saudi Arabia by a regime minister since 2011. Assad political advisor Bouthaina Shaaban celebrated this visit, expressing hope it would lead to further “positive results” soon.
In late June, Syrian Airlines announced resumption of direct flights to Dubai beginning July 3, following the resumption by Syria’s flagship carrier to Abu Dhabi. Earlier in May, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, and Kuwait allowed Syrian absentee voting in their countries, despite severe restrictions by the regime on which Syrians could vote.
Motivations for Gulf Reengagement
All this activity, building on previous Gulf diplomatic activity over the past three years, raises a number of questions. The first relates to Gulf countries’ varied motivations and possible expectations of reciprocal actions from Damascus. Oman, over the course of the war in Syria, has made clear its adherence to the principles of respect for sovereignty and noninterference in the affairs of neighbors and “brotherly” Arab countries. Even at the height of the civil war, Oman sent its foreign minister to Damascus to meet with Assad. Saudi Arabia’s, the UAE’s, and Qatar’s relations with Syria have extensively evolved over the past decade. To varying degrees, directly or indirectly, they provided arms early on to some of the rebel groups opposing Assad, though each eventually disengaged and at least Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have taken steps toward reengagement with the Assad regime.
The UAE, Oman, and Saudi Arabia seem motivated by an assessment that the war is over, and Syria needs to be reintegrated into the region to prevent any failed state scenario or other destabilizing fallout from the civil war. This realpolitik assessment has gained increasing purchase ever since Russia’s decisive 2015 military intervention. Supported by Egypt and Jordan, there seems to be growing Gulf comfort with the idea of bringing Syria back into the Arab League. Jordan is also motivated by the economic imperative of Syrian cross-border trade as a vital support for Jordan’s economy, an issue King Abdullah II reportedly raised with U.S. officials on his recent visit.
Emiratis Focused on Islamic Extremism and Turkey’s Regional Influence
For Emirati officials, there are broader regional and ideological considerations related to concerns about Arab Spring unrest and threats it could have posed to the monarchies in the Gulf that have pushed them to the Gulf forefront in reengaging with Assad. Emirati officials regularly insisted that Turkey’s ideological affiliation with and political support for the Muslim Brotherhood fed this unrest and led Ankara to view the protests as a lever for reshaping the Gulf and the broader Middle East in ways that would accentuate Turkey’s influence.
Given the Emiratis’ concerns about the spectrum of political Islamist groups, they became concerned about the violent jihadist groups that became more prominent in the rebel opposition to Assad. That led Emirati decision makers to cautiously express support for Russia’s 2015 military intervention.
The Emiratis’ concern about Turkey’s influence in Syria is part of their concerns regarding Ankara’s regional ambitions, termed “colonial” behavior by one senior UAE official. This helps explain tentative Emirati diplomatic reengagement with the Syrian government and statements by senior officials like Anwar Gargash, former minister of state for foreign affairs, underscoring the “the Arab role” in ending the Syria crisis. While Gargash made a statement in January about the prospects for an improvement in relations with Turkey, some analysts have suggested the Emiratis remain quite concerned about Ankara, which may go a long way to explaining their actions and statements in support of reengagement with the Assad regime.
Saudi Concerns Focused on Iran, Not Turkey
With its efforts to repair relations with Ankara over recent months, Saudi Arabia seems less concerned at present about Turkish influence in Syria. However, Saudi officials share Emirati concerns about Iran’s powerful clench on power, institutions, and decision making in Syria, which helps explain the tentative Saudi steps toward reengagement with the Syrian government. Saudi and UAE officials have reportedly made the case with U.S. officials that reengagement with the Assad regime could persuade Syria to reduce its reliance on Iran.
A sustained history of support for the Syrian political opposition and years of pointed anti-Assad media efforts inside Saudi Arabia – coloring Saudi domestic opinion – help explain why Riyadh has proceeded more slowly than the UAE with reengagement. That cautious approach is also likely shaped by a degree of skepticism about Assad’s willingness to reciprocate. For the Emiratis, the powerful concern about Turkey seems to keep any Emirati skepticism about regime reciprocation relatively contained.
Qatar is the outlier in terms of Gulf reengagement with Assad. While it gradually curtailed active support for Islamist rebel elements in Syria as the threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant metastasized, it has remained relatively hostile to the Assad regime, staying in close alignment with its ally, Turkey. Doha’s strengthened relationship with Iran as it endured an over 3-year boycott by some of its Gulf Arab neighbors suggests Qatar lacks concerns about Iranian influence in Syria.
U.S. Policy: Yellow Light on a Dead-End Road
All Gulf countries reassessing their relations with Syria are likely to be closely eyeing emerging U.S. policy for clues about how the administration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. will respond to reengagement with Syria. Thus far, they do not appear to have cause for alarm. The Biden team has emphasized keeping the U.S. military presence in northeast Syria, leaning in to improve the humanitarian situation, and working for a nationwide cease-fire. But it has not embraced the former administration’s maximum pressure effort on Assad. Officials in the new administration seem to be less bothered by these Gulf steps toward reengagement and diplomatic normalization with the Assad regime. The message to Gulf leaders is likely to be one of U.S. skepticism that Assad will reciprocate in any meaningful way. But such a message will not slow Gulf reengagement efforts with Assad and his regime.
U.S. Sanctions Set Hard Stop on Reengagement
However, congressionally mandated Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act sanctions will impose some braking force and hard stops on certain types of economic reengagement, including Gulf investment activity and reconstruction efforts inside Syria, frustrating those among Gulf leaders (and in the broader region) who might want to proceed more boldly. For example, these sanctions specifically target foreigners who provide “significant construction or engineering services to the government of Syria” or “significant financial, material, or technological support” or engage “in a significant transaction with” the Syrian government or foreign elements in Syria helping the Assad regime’s war effort.
Stalemate in Syria Bricked In for Foreseeable Future
Given that sanctions threat, Gulf reengagement with Syria will have difficulty proceeding very far beyond current diplomatic (largely symbolic) contours. While Russia will certainly be pushing vigorously for more Gulf action, U.S. officials will likely note to Gulf officials that Caesar sanctions are congressionally mandated. For the foreseeable future, with the conflict in Syria apparently stalemated and international diplomatic efforts unavailing, it is hard to see how Gulf reengagement with Assad will have significant impact. But with or without resolution of the conflict and diplomatic progress, Gulf reengagement with Assad will likely continue even as Gulf states strain to avoid falling afoul of U.S. sanctions, driven by concerns about Iranian and Turkish influence and fears related to Islamist movements – concerns they will undoubtedly make clear to U.S. officials in the coming months as they press for a way around what they view as the dangerous, futile stalemate in Syria. U.S. officials, skeptical of any Assad willingness to negotiate on issues like prisoners and unfettered access for humanitarian aid – let alone a real political transition – and revolted by Assad’s crimes, seem unlikely to do more than tweak sanctions enforcement at the outermost margins. For the time being, a robust U.S. engagement that would attempt to use the sanctions as a lever for diplomatic progress seems walled off.
is the executive vice president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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