|Bahrain’s Foreign Minister, Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, meeting with Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al Muallem last September.|
Since September, there have been increasing indications of a rapprochement between Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and the Syrian regime, a trend that was reinforced by recent regional developments. While GCC-Syrian regime relations are far from full normalization, the symbolic moves show how each GCC country is recalibrating its approach toward the Syrian conflict. The open question remains whether such overtures have any impact on Syria and on the GCC’s influence there.
In the past two years, a series of consequential developments weakened the influence of Gulf Arab countries in Syria. The Astana process to create de-escalation zones in Syria and the 2017 US-Russian ceasefire agreement halted the flow of arms and militants to the northern and southern borders of Syria; these represented the two supply lines that once ensured GCC states’ influence in the conflict by supporting the armed opposition. The brief harmony between Saudi Arabia and Qatar in 2012, immediately after the Arab Spring began, was replaced by clashes of interests in Syria and beyond since 2013. Moreover, the Saudi-led embargo of Qatar that began in June 2017 further weakened the GCC’s leverage in Syria, as the focus shifted to the implications of the GCC crisis.
Mixed Signs of Rapprochement
The GCC countries’ incremental steps toward normalization with Damascus are progressing at a steady pace. First, on September 29 there was the public embrace between Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa and his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Mouallem, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. Al Khalifa spoke then about restoring the Arab role in Syria and revealed that he had met al-Mouallem “several times in recent years when we were at the UN, but this time it was caught on camera.” However, it was clear that Bahrain’s foreign minister wanted this symbolic move to be caught on camera to break the ice and open the conversation about gradually restoring his country’s ties with the Syrian regime.
Prior to that, on August 29, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir struck a positive tone1 during a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, saying that efforts should be intensified to secure the return of Syrian refugees to their homes and that Riyadh would help to unify the ranks of Syria’s opposition. Al-Mouallem described al-Jubeir’s remarks as a “tangible change” in Riyadh’s position and, on October 16, joked2 with reporters while concluding a press conference: “I expected you to ask about this journalist, what’s his name, but you didn’t care, neither do I,” referring to the October 2 killing of Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi, which led to international pressure on the Saudi leadership. The Syrian regime saw in the Khashoggi murder an opportunity to publicly minimize the affair and therefore curry favor with the Saudis in order to accelerate the pace of restoring ties with Riyadh. However, there could be some differences of opinion inside the regime on what this might mean for Damascus’s relations with Tehran.
The reluctance to engage, by both Damascus and Riyadh, was evident on October 17 when the Syrian and Saudi ambassadors to the United Nations clashed3 during a Security Council session. After Saudi Ambassador Abdallah al-Mouallimi affirmed that the Syrian regime is hindering the peace talks, his Syrian counterpart Bashar Jaafari accused the Saudi regime of supporting terrorism and brought up the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Moreover, the Saudi ambassador to Jordan, Khalid bin Turki Al Saud, commented4 on October 11 on Russia giving the S-300 missile system to Syria, saying that “the problem is not in the existence of the S-300, the problem is in the existence of the Syrian regime.”
Such public Saudi rhetoric against the Syrian regime has not been consistent in recent weeks. Of four trucks loaded with Syrian goods that traversed the Nasib-Jaber border crossing with Jordan for the first time in October, two reportedly continued5 their way to Saudi Arabia. It seems there is a review of the Saudi approach to Syria, one that might take longer to evolve compared to that of other GCC countries. Indeed, opening the Nasib crossing for the passage of goods may become a symbol of the economic rapprochement for which many in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan are looking.
Despite some public resistance on the part of the Saudis, this shift in the GCC approach has been in the making since the beginning of 2018. A few weeks before the Al Khalifa-Mouallem public embrace in New York, some indications of a potential GCC shift on Syria came from Abu Dhabi. The UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, tweeted6 on September 8 that the weakening of the Arab influence in Syria requires “a serious and comprehensive review and lessons that must be applied with rationality, despite the bitter taste they may leave.” Moreover, a UAE businessman close to his country’s ruling family reportedly visited7 Syria in early August and is mediating between Damascus and Abu Dhabi. In the past weeks, there has been increasing chatter in both the Arab8 and Russian9 media that the UAE might soon reopen its embassy in Damascus, which had closed in February 2012. If confirmed, other Gulf and Arab countries might follow suit.
Indications are also coming from other GCC countries. Kuwait is taking concrete steps to end the involvement of its citizens in the Syrian conflict. Local media sources have indicated10 that the Kuwaiti government plans to secure the return and prosecution of nearly 12 nationals still fighting along Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib. Kuwait has also been in touch with the Syrian regime to deport Syrian nationals who have violated the residency law in Kuwait.
Oman has kept its ties with the Syrian regime during the Syrian war. Walid al-Mouallem visited Muscat in March to open the new building of the Syrian embassy; this was his second visit to Oman since 2015. Qatar has also modified its tone regarding the Syrian regime, as the GCC crisis, which started in June 2017, changed Doha’s regional calculus and priorities. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reportedly told Syrian journalists in Damascus that relations with Qatar have been resumed at a very low level—a development that Doha has yet to confirm publicly.
Most of this timid reconciliation between the GCC nations and the Syrian regime may be credited to Russia’s clout in Syria. Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been increasingly engaging Moscow, as Russian authorities continue to urge GCC countries to help in the return of Syrian refugees to their homes and in the reconstruction process. Some individual GCC countries have been appeasing Russia with the aim of gaining a seat at the table in the Syrian peace talks.
The Lack of a GCC vision in Syria
In their public statements, all GCC countries emphasize the importance of finding a political solution to the Syrian conflict, but they seem to have neither a clear vision nor a common approach. Moreover, it is apparent that they all have resigned themselves to the Russian role in Syria. Although each GCC country has its own pace in dealing with the Syrian regime, it is clear that they are all going in the direction of some sort of engagement with Damascus.
Riyadh is sending mixed signals on Syria and seems not to have settled on a clear approach, given that its rapprochement with Russia requires some flexibility. However, Saudi Arabia’s strategic alliance with the United States also demands some continued pressure on the Assad regime to concede.
If the UAE and Bahrain lead the way in restoring ties with the Syrian regime, this would relieve Riyadh from the pressure of taking the first step toward normalization. However, Saudi Arabia, and to a certain extent Qatar, will have to balance between any planned normalization steps with their ties to the Syrian opposition. If Riyadh engages Damascus, its relations with the Syrian opposition might weaken. The Syrian regime would then further disregard the Syrian opposition and opt to deal directly with Riyadh, and this might shift the balance of power as the Syrian opposition may coalesce around Turkey instead.
The GCC leaders’ thinking is that restoring ties with Damascus and providing GCC funding to the reconstruction of Syria would strengthen their influence in postwar Syria and potentially provide a balance to Iranian leverage. The long-standing GCC bet—that engaging the Syrian regime would drive a wedge between Damascus and Tehran—may have become less feasible, considering how entrenched Iranian influence has become in Syria over the past five years.
No matter what steps the GCC countries might take toward normalizing with the Syrian regime, their impact as individual countries and as an organization will most probably remain limited in Syria. The only leverage the GCC can bring to the table is its connection with the Syrian opposition in exile and the potential funding of reconstruction, two bargaining chips that might not be enough to convince Russia, in return, to concede on Syria. The GCC’s ties with the Syrian regime will have the most impact on Lebanon and Jordan, relieving both governments from the pressure of restoring economic and political ties with Damascus. Deterring the Iranian regime in Syria might not be within reach for the GCC, at least in the short term.
Potential Impact of the GCC’s Return to Syria
Developments in recent weeks might accelerate the pace of the restoration of relations between the Syrian regime and some GCC countries. Since the Khashoggi murder, Riyadh and Damascus have found a common rival to work against—Turkey—while they continue to differ on Iran. Russia is likely to welcome a GCC return to Syria not only to balance Iranian influence but also to weaken the calls for Bashar al-Assad’s departure. Furthermore, restoring GCC countries’ ties with Damascus could allay United States concerns about Russia’s monopoly over developments in Syria since they may then have some influence over future peace talks.
If reconciliation between Riyadh and Doha fails to materialize, the Saudi rapprochement with Damascus might become more possible while Qatar continues its alliance with Turkey. The UAE, Bahrain, and Oman are expected to continue their steps toward normalizing relations with Damascus while Kuwait might be the last GCC country to do so—to avoid any public backlash at home. But for Assad, it is a win-win situation since the GCC countries are at least no longer calling for his departure.
The United States has limited bargaining chips in this equation. A Saudi role in both northern Syria and Damascus might complicate US efforts in the country. The continuation of the GCC crisis will ensure the division of the Syrian opposition between those allied with Turkey and those allied with Saudi Arabia. Russia and the Syrian regime will mostly gain from these new dynamics, and the US leverage in the Syrian conflict will continue its steady decline. The lack of a clear and engaged American strategy is allowing some Arab allies to improvise their roles in Syria. While the GCC return to Syria might be inevitable, there should be a coherent and consistent engagement approach that serves the interests of the Syrian people in the long term.
1 Source is in Arabic.
2 Source is in Arabic.
3 Source is in Arabic.
4 Source is in Arabic.
5 Source is in Arabic.
6 Source is in Arabic.
7 Source is in Arabic.
8 Source is in Arabic.
9 Source is in Russian (translation available).
10Source is in Arabic.