Gulf States’ Syria Approach: Regional Pragmatism in the Face of Global Multipolarity - Bureau de la Fondation au Liban
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The normalization with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and Syria’s reintegration into the Arab League (AL), decided in May 2023 at the AL Summit in Jeddah after 12 years of Syrian isolation, was mainly prepared and orchestrated by some of the Gulf monarchies – first and foremost the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Oman together with Jordan. After the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria in spring 2023, other countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) such as Saudi Arabia also used the humanitarian emergency as a momentum to create closer ties with the al-Assad regime as part of their “earthquake diplomacy.”
The rapprochement with the Syrian regime thus means a turnaround in the GCC states’ approach towards Syria after the war started in 2011. At that time, Gulf monarchies aimed to push al-Assad to implement political reforms but this approach failed. In contrast, both the brutal crackdown and al-Assad’s rejection to implement the AL’s Arab Initiative, which called for a comprehensive dialogue to halt the Syrian bloodshed led to the suspension of Syria from the AL in November 2011. In the following years, some GCC states also engaged to support different parts of the Syrian anti-Assad opposition but reduced such cooperation to a minimum as the al-Assad regime, with the military support from Russia and Iran, has gained back most of the Syrian territory in recent years.
However, Gulf states’ normalization with the al-Assad regime in Syria show a mixed record at best and real opportunities for closer cooperation remain grim: First and foremost, the al-Assad regime is not considered as a trustworthy partner. Secondly, the Gulf states do not act in a unified manner as Qatar still opposes the reintegration of Syria into the AL. Thirdly, the Gulf states watch the ongoing internal protests in parts of Syria with great concern. Still, no long-term solution for the roots of the war is at sight as the al-Assad regime continues to act in a brutal way to repress opposition. Therefore, new waves of protests indicate the fragility of the Syrian stability which also undermines Gulf interests. Finally, US sanctions are still in place and reduce options for Gulf states to invest in Syria to a minimum.
As a consequence, the Gulf states’ engagement with Syria is mainly driven by a calculation of pragmatic necessity, yet a comprehensive and sustainable strategic approach is still lacking. Developments thus need to be considered as a transactional step towards greater conflict management and regional agency.
Note to the reader: This report was completed before the October 7th events that shook Israel and the Gaza Strip and which are since reshaping regional security and political considerations.