The Gulf States and Syria

The protracted uprising in Syria has frustrated the Gulf States' previous ability to exert a decisive influence over the revolutions of the Arab Spring. As routes to aiding the opposition become increasingly complicated, will they lose their seat at the table in a future settlement?

Syrians prepare to mark the second anniversary of the uprising against President Bashir al-Assad against the backdrop of an escalating civil conflict. A fractured opposition has notably been unable to tip the balance of power in its favour. Regional and international condemnation of Assad has failed to force him to the negotiating table. The heady days of the civilian uprising of 2011 are now a distant memory in the bloodiest frontline of the ‘Arab Spring.’ From the start, the Gulf States played a prominent role in shaping regional responses to the Syrian uprising. This did not emerge from a vacuum but instead represents part of an effort to maximise Gulf interests in the regional upheaval, however ill-defined they may be.

Qatar and, to a lesser extent, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had been instrumental in hastening the downfall of Gaddafi’s dictatorship in Libya. A multifaceted intervention encompassed direct military and financial support alongside diplomatic recognition and commercial assistance. Their high-profile contribution provided the Gulf States with a breathing space from Arab Spring pressures as it shifted attention from difficulties uncomfortably closer to home. It enabled the Gulf monarchs to align themselves against a repressive authoritarian regime and make a stand against tyranny in Libya even as they acquiesced in its brutal submission in Bahrain.

Flushed by that apparent success, in late-2011 the focus of the Gulf States’ attention turned to Syria, whose uprising was becoming increasingly militarised. Just as he had done over Libya, the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, called for an armed Arab intervention in January 2012 to end the bloodshed in Syria. As the rotating head of the Arab League in 2011, Qatar was instrumental in suspending Syria’s membership, triggering a diplomatic spat with Algeria in the process. Coverage of Syria on Al Jazeera increasingly became partial as the station focused on publicising regime atrocities while championing the largely-ineffective Syrian National Council. However, Qatar’s attempt to repeat the Libya card failed in Syria, as a watered-down Arab League observer mission proved ineffective and powerless in halting the violence.

As multilateral efforts moved to the United Nations, the Gulf States adopted unilateral and largely unregulated policies toward Syria. In the views of Gulf officials, the decision to arm opposition groups was a natural progression following the successive failure of calls for internal reform, diplomatic mediation, and the multilateral Arab League-UN approach. However, American concerns about the possibility that arms might end up in terror-designated hands led to pressure on the Gulf to limit transfers of small arms rather than heavy weapons such shoulder-fired missiles. The result was a deepening of the stalemate as rebel groups were able to prolong the conflict but did not acquire the capability to inflict game-changing reverses on the regime.

This also created an additional layer of fragmentation as men, materiel, and money began to be channelled to a wide variety of often-competing groups. Fighters began crossing illegally into Syria from Saudi Arabia, often making use of cross-border tribal networks that link the two countries. In September 2012, a detailed report by Time Magazine claimed that Qatari and Saudi funding and weaponry was finding its way to competing factions within the Free Syrian Army. Whereas Qatar reportedly developed close links with the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria, other Gulf networks allegedly supported Salafi groups that form part of wider Islamist networks. The report concluded that Qatar and Saudi Arabia were engaged in “a game of conflicting favourites that is getting in the way of creating a unified rebel force to topple the Assad regime.”

Private fund-raising events have become common spectacles in Gulf States and even a form of one-upmanship as individual tribes and organisations compete with each other to raise the most money and support. A recent investigation conducted by The National newspaper in Abu Dhabi found that Kuwait “has emerged as a central fund-raising hub for direct financial support to insurgents” fighting in Syria, alongside estimates that tens of millions of dollars had been provided in humanitarian aid alone. Most of the aid bypasses the UN and international aid agencies and is sent directly into rebel-controlled areas, utilising the ties of tribal kinship and local networks that are unavailable to the international organisations.

The difficulty of tracking such flows of fighters and funds is compounded by opacity, lack of transparency, and absence of monitoring. These have been features of Gulf governments’ overseas aid and assistance policies in other conflict-affected environments. Some of them were on display during and after the UN donor conference on Syria held in Kuwait on 30 January. The meeting resulted in pledges of more than $1.5 billion in humanitarian assistance, with Kuwait alone pledging $300 million, a figure matched by the UAE and Saudi Arabia. A separate gathering of 77 local, regional, and international charities and private donors raised a further $182 million in pledges. Just a week later, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, announced that the UAE would disburse its contribution directly to ‘the Syrian people’ (left undefined) rather than multilaterally under UN supervision.

The persistence of unilateral approaches both to military and humanitarian support risks undermining the collective effort to resolve the Syrian crisis. Lack of coordination among donors may result in duplicate or overlapping policies. Country-specific flows may target recipients based on their affiliation to particular organisations rather than their actual need for assistance or support. Gulf sympathies for their Sunni brethren in Syria also exacerbate the prospects of further radicalisation and sectarianisation of the civil conflict and an escalating cycle of atrocity and counter-atrocity. As there is no common ‘Gulf approach’ to Syria, the unregulated flows are more likely to destabilise the country by empowering diverse and often competing recipients. 

Led by Qatar, the Gulf States were hoping for a ‘quick win’ in Syria in 2011. As these aspirations have faded, policy pronouncements have become shriller and less realistic. Thus in October 2012, Qatar’s Prime Minister, Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani accused the Assad regime of orchestrating “a genocide, a war of extermination with a license to kill by the Syrian regime and the international community.” Frustration with the inability of the UN or the Arab League to bring about an end to the violence or reach a political solution is understandable, and the Gulf States have indeed gone further than most in trying to change the balance of power on the ground. Qatar also hosted and put together the Syrian National Coalition in November 2012, but this has been as ineffective as its predecessor, the Syrian National Council.

Therein lies the difficulty for the Gulf States: having picked ‘winners’ that have failed to deliver in Syria, there does not appear to be a Plan B, while their public denunciations of Assad mean that the Gulf States cannot be credible mediators in any eventual settlement. If the result is to drive state and private aid from the Gulf further ‘underground’ along unregulated and informal channels, chances are that the Syrian civil war will only deepen in the months ahead. 2011 does indeed seem a lifetime away.

About the author

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a Research Fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston and an Associate Fellow at Chatham House in London. His work includes The Logistics and Politics of the British Campaigns in the Middle East (Palgrave, 2010), Insecure Gulf: The End of Certainty and the Transition to the Post-Oil Era (Hurst & Co, 2011) and he was co-editor with David Held of The Transformation of the Gulf: Politics, Economics and the Global Order (2011). His forthcoming book, Qatar and the Arab Spring, will be published by Hurst & Co in summer 2014.

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