By Prasanta Kumar Pradhan
Ever since the protests started against Bashar al Assad’s regime, the Gulf countries have adopted a tough posture by criticising and condemning the reactions of the Syrian government and squarely putting the blame upon it for the unfolding situation. The Gulf monarchies, which suppressed protests in their own countries and were against any kind of regime change in their own region, have accused the Assad regime of killings and violating human rights and have been questioning the regime’s legitimacy to continue its rule. With the protests against the Assad regime turning increasingly violent and the Syrian regime’s strong military response, the political dynamics in the region have become more intricate.
The GCC countries have their own reasons to believe that a regime change in Damascus is necessary. They do not enjoy a warm relationship with Syria; instead, they see it as a strategic ally of Iran which latter has the potential to undermine their dominance in the region. Also, Assad being an Alawite Shia does not get along well with the Sunni rulers of the Gulf. Assad and the Gulf countries have differences of opinions over regional issues such as Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, etc. The proximity of the Gulf countries to the United States and the rivalry between the United States and the Assad regime is another factor that fuels antipathy between the two.
Initially, the Gulf countries appealed to the Syrian government to stop the killings and to adopt adequate reform measures to meet the aspirations of the people. But by the time the Syrian government called for a dialogue and reforms it was clearly too late for the regime to gain support from the people. With the situation going from bad to worse, the Gulf countries exerted more political and diplomatic pressure on Syria and tried to internationalise the issue. They supported the Arab League proposal to establish peace in Syria as well as the mission of the Kofi Annan and his six point formula which was later adopted by the UN as a road map for bringing peace and stability. The Gulf countries have also given political support to all US resolutions in the UNSC against the Assad regime. But given that none of these initiatives have worked, in order to exert further pressure the Gulf countries decided to recall their ambassadors from Damascus and also expelled Syrian envoys from their countries. They also withdrew their representatives from the Arab League observers’ mission in Syria.
The Gulf countries’ attempts to internationalise the Syrian crisis is intended to remove Assad from power. At present none of them have any concrete proposal as to who will succeed Assad. Despite the ambiguity surrounding the next line of probable leadership, GCC countries still want a Syria without Assad at the top. They are certain to push for a Sunni leader and regime which would increase their influence in Syria. At the same time, a weakened Syria minus Assad would lead to a substantial decrease in Iranian influence in Syria and in the region as well. Iran has maintained strong ties with the Assad regime and it is seen by the GCC countries as a potential threat to their strategic interests in the region. The Iran-Syria relationship is an important pillar of the Shia arc threatening traditional Sunni dominance in the region. The Shia resurgence of the last few years has been a major concern for the Sunni regimes in the Gulf. In their view Iran has been the principal actor espousing Shia unity and joining hands with the regimes like that of Assad. The Iraq experience must have taught a lesson to the Gulf kingdoms where Iran has significantly increased its influence in the post-Saddam scenario.
Two of the GCC countries, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have openly called for arming the Syrian rebels to fight against the regime’s security forces. They believe that all kinds of political and diplomatic initiatives by the regional and world powers have failed and thus arming the rebels is the only viable option left with them. Kuwait’s parliament has passed a non-binding resolution calling on its government to arm the Syrian rebels. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal went to the extent of saying that arming the Syrian opposition is a “duty” as the opposition cannot defend itself in the face of the violent crackdown by the security forces. By supporting the arming of the rebel forces, Saudi Arabia and Qatar seem to be suggesting a Libya-like solution to the Syrian crisis—remove Assad by arming the rebels and install another regime in power. But the Syrian government has, from the beginning, rejected any kind of external invention in its internal affairs. This position was most vocally stated by the Syrian ambassador to the UN, Bashar Jaafari, when he said that, “Syria will not be Libya; Syria will not be Iraq; Syria will not be Somalia; Syria will not be a failing state.” Thus, the intensity in the attempts by the Gulf countries to remove Assad and the equally intensive defiance by the regime have persisted throughout the crisis.
The approach of GCC countries towards the Syrian crisis has shifted from appealing for political reforms to internationalising the issue to arming the regime’s opposition. While the advice from the Gulf has fallen on deaf ears in Syria, and political and diplomatic attempts have not yet provided any concrete results, removing the regime by use of force has come to the fore as a doable alternative in the thinking of some of the Gulf monarchies. For them, this is the right opportunity to remove Assad from power and install a friendly regime in Damascus. They have become partially successful in their attempts to internationalise the issue and draw world attention to the wrong doings of the Assad regime. While Assad’s removal from power would make it easier for the Gulf countries to intervene in Syria’s future political developments and tilt the regional balance of power in their favour, Assad’s prolongation in power will continue to pose challenges for them.
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/GCCandtheSyrianCrisis_PKPradhan_210612