Aspects of the Gulf conflict have trickled down to North Africa and fault lines have further hardened in various states due to their own internal political and socioeconomic dynamics.
In recent months, Gulf Arab states have been in the spotlight as they move to normalize relations with Israel. Yet, another type of normalization is taking place in the region: reestablishing ties with the Syrian government in Damascus.
In 2011, the Arab League suspended Syria over opposition to the government’s crackdown on protesters. Gulf Arab states pulled their ambassadors from Damascus, and the Gulf Cooperation Council recognized the National Coalition of the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the “legitimate representative” of the Syrian people, in hopes that would lead to a “quick political transfer of power.”
Motivations for Reengagement
While some Gulf Arab states supported the Syrian opposition early in the war, they shifted course after Russia offered support to the Syrian government in the battle of Aleppo in 2017, helping President Bashar al-Assad regain military control over a large part of the country. This was a turning point for Syria because it proved that opposition groups would not be able to achieve regime change by force, and the United States was no longer interested in pushing for such a change. Once the Russians helped the Syrian government control the main political and economic centers, such as Damascus, the coastal region, and Aleppo, the idea of bringing down Assad ceased to be a practical policy for most Gulf Arab countries.
Gulf states’ initial opposition to Assad owed much to their desire to diminish the influence of Iran, which backed the Syrian regime. Therefore, with the turn of events in 2017, many Gulf states began to view Russian influence as less troubling than that of Iran. Meanwhile, there has been a growing wedge between both the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which has manifested in Syria, leading the two Gulf states to stand by Assad’s government against Turkish influence, with its strong links to political Islam. Gulf countries also see economic opportunities in participating in Syria’s reconstruction efforts, estimated between $250 billion and $1 trillion.
Gulf Arab Countries’ Approaches Toward Syria
The UAE cut diplomatic ties with Syria and closed its embassy in Damascus in 2011. During the initial years of the conflict, the UAE was clear in its opposition to the Syrian government, evident in the minister of foreign affairs’ statement in 2013. This began to change in 2015, when the UAE’s minister of state supported Russia’s military intervention. With time, the UAE’s calculations changed as Turkey’s role in Syria increased, “radical Islamist” groups emerged, and Russia solidified Assad’s hold on power. In 2018, the UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus.
Following the footsteps of the UAE, Bahrain reopened its embassy in Damascus in 2018, claiming that it, too, supported the sovereignty of Syria, and as a result, would resume cooperation with what it referred to as a “brotherly” country. Bahrain is similar to the UAE in prioritizing its opposition to Iran’s role in the region and limiting Turkey’s influence. In June, the Bahraini Foreign Ministry’s undersecretary for international affairs reemphasized the importance of protecting Syria’s territory and sovereignty, and he said that settling the conflict could only happen through nonmilitary means. Meanwhile, the Syrian government, backed by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, has continued fighting to regain control of the country.
Oman’s initial policy regarding the Syrian conflict was in line with the GCC position. Gradually, Oman moved back to its traditional foreign policy of noninterference. Although Oman, as part of the GCC, recognized the Syrian National Coalition in 2011, it maintained diplomatic ties with the Syrian government. Muscat was clear about its humanitarian and diplomatic approach toward the Syrian war and did not finance rebel groups. Even at the height of the military confrontation in 2015, Oman’s minister of foreign affairs met with Assad in Damascus, where he reaffirmed Oman’s commitment to Syria’s sovereignty and its role in eliminating terrorism. Recently, the sultanate reinstated its ambassador to Syria.
Kuwait’s attitude toward Syria has been clear since the onset of the war: It opposed the government and aimed to decrease Iranian intervention by financing Syrian opposition groups. According to U.S. officials in 2013, much of the funding for Syrian opposition groups had come from Gulf private citizens, particularly Kuwaitis. In 2017, Kuwait restated its position toward the Syrian conflict and asserted that a solution is only achievable through a political resolution. When the UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus, Kuwait expressed its opposition to following suit without the approval of the Arab League. However, at the same time, it was reconnecting with its pre-conflict Syrian business contacts and economic interests.
In 2011, Qatar pulled its ambassador from Syria and remains adamant in its opposition to normalization with Damascus. Qatar has provided substantial funding to Syrian opposition groups, estimated at between $1 billion and $3 billion by 2013. That year, Qatar’s foreign minister confirmed the country’s support for the Syrian National Coalition and the opposition Free Syrian Army, and in 2016, he said Qatar was determined to continue its financial support to opposition groups. Doha is supportive of Turkish influence in the region and promoting itself as an advocate of democracy. Qatar continues to support regime change in Syria, despite Assad’s close ties with Iran and Doha’s increasing dependence on Tehran since the Saudi- and UAE-led boycott on Qatar in 2017.
Saudi Arabia also withdrew its ambassador from Syria in 2011 and called on Assad to end the violence against the Syrian people. Saudi Arabia’s response to the Syrian uprising was strategic in that it focused on a proactive foreign policy through Gulf alliances that aimed at suppressing Iranian influence. In efforts to topple Assad and assert itself as the hegemon of the region, Saudi Arabia financed opposition groups, including Jaish al-Islam. In 2017, Saudi Arabia reasserted its opposition to a role for Assad in the future of Syria. So far, Saudi Arabia’s public position toward Syria remains the same, having stated its opposition to normalization in 2019.
While Gulf Arab states have each taken a slightly different approach regarding the Syrian war, they all initially opposed Assad citing humanitarian concerns for the Syrian people. However, following the Russian intervention and the battle for Aleppo, it became increasingly clear to GCC states that the Syrian government was going to maintain its hold on power. This prompted many Gulf states to shift their policies, prioritizing their concerns over growing Iranian and Turkish influence in Syria rather than pursuing a transfer of power or improving conditions for the Syrian people. Now, it remains to be seen if the Gulf Arab states are likely to achieve either objective.
Biden will likely put weapons sales to the Gulf on the back burner, but, at the end of the day, the administration’s positions on arms sales will reflect continuity, not change.
Through its careful examination of the forces shaping the evolution of Gulf societies and the new generation of emerging leaders, AGSIW facilitates a richer understanding of the role the countries in this key geostrategic region can be expected to play in the 21st century.Learn More