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GCC Engagement with Syria: Seeking A New Path

The conflict in Syria has turned it from a regional player to a new battleground for regional powers – a battleground that, so far, some of the six Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have decidedly been losing in. The GCC’s regional foes and competitors, particularly Iran and Turkey, seem so far to have reaped the benefits of the conflict. In remarkable disunity, some GCC states pursued disastrous, and sometimes diverging, policies ranging between partial engagement to total disengagement, with the end result that the GCC countries have become mostly irrelevant to the resolution of the conflict. Their absence from Syria in recent years has only diminished their influence further.

Despite these setbacks, it is not too late for the Arab Gulf states to reverse some of the losses and to shape the outcome of the conflict in Syria, a country that once was called ‘the heart of the Arab world.’ To do this, though, the GCC countries need to pursue a new approach – and they have both a moral and a strategic imperative to do so.

A Bumpy History

The relationship between Syria and the GCC states has never been straightforward. Although united in history and sharing a common language, after the Second World War, there was rarely an extended period of warm relations, as Syria and the GCC countries differed in their regional outlook, the nature of their political systems, and their international alliances. The first decade of the 2000s was no exception to this rule, with the two sides quarrelling over various regional questions and conspiring against one another; the GCC countries successfully teamed up with Western states to secure Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, and the Syrian president dubbed the leaders of the GCC countries as ‘half-men’ in 2006.

Despite their difficult history, at the onset of the Syrian uprising, the GCC states were reluctant to allow the government of Bashar Assad to fall. GCC countries reached out to the Syrian government offering help, and late Saudi King Abdullah was reported to have dispatched his son and personal envoy to Syria, pledging new investments. The Qataris also offered their political and financial help.

However, with the regime turning a deaf ear for regional initiatives, dragging its feet on promises of reform, and using military force against hitherto peaceful protests, causing hundreds of deaths, Qatar and Saudi Arabia shifted their position in support of the opposition. The GCC countries further led the charge in isolating Syria by arranging for the suspension of its membership from the Arab League. The strategic motives behind their decisions differed for each actor; however, the differences with the regime were ultimately irreconcilable, and their divorce was final. The UAE and Bahrain sided with the boycotting countries, while Kuwait and Oman maintained amicable relations with the Assad government.

Differences over Syria still persist between those still holding to their ‘principled position,’ primarily Qatar, and those seeking reengagement, primarily the UAE. The other GCC countries seem unsure how to tread further, and have not committed to an approach yet.

Syria, One Decade Later

The tenth anniversary of the Syrian uprising, which soon spun into a lethal mix of civil and proxy wars, gives hardly any reasons to celebrate. More than half a million people have died in the conflict, and half of Syria’s population has been internally or externally displaced. The country is divided into three different zones of control, with foreign armies present in support of the various de facto authorities. The conflict is estimated to have cost all parties a combined $530 billion USD; 13.4 million Syrians are in dire need of humanitarian assistance; 12.4 million Syrians are food-insecure; 2.45 million Syrian children are out of school, with thousands of them suffering from easily preventable diseases such as stunting and malnutrition. Recently, the Syrian pound reached its lowest rate on record, trading at approximately 4700 per dollar – a collapse that has pushed more people into poverty and increased the price of basic needs beyond the reach of hundreds of thousands of households.

Syria’s economic woes, which are partly due to corruption, poor management, and the imposition of sanctions, have been compounded by the simultaneous outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic and the collapse of the banking sector in neighboring Lebanon, in which $20-42 billion USD disappeared overnight. These events have had a severe toll on the Syrian economy and population.

The finger of responsibility squarely points to the Syrian regime, which has mishandled a great opportunity for reform and a moment of national pride at the time of regional upheaval that may have improved the standing of the country. Although the Assad regime is by far the main culprit, it is impossible to dismiss the responsibility of regional and international actors, or to absolve them from the consequences of their policies. This applies to the GCC countries, too.

A New Road Map

To respond to Syria’s urgent needs, and because of the changing political realities on the ground, the GCC countries must take a new course of action. Gulf states’ policies should be driven by realism, humanitarian consideration, and regional interests, namely decreasing the influence of other actors within Syria, ensuring stability, and curbing negative externalities such as drug trafficking and organized crime.

The GCC has an obvious geopolitical interest in this endeavor: it is simply bad policy to abandon Syria to the interests of Russia, Iran, and Turkey, and the Gulf states must act to rebuild their credibility there. First and foremost, the GCC countries should craft an independent policy for Syria from that of the United States that prioritizes and secures their interests and those of Syrian civilians. For its lack of clear policy in the country, the U.S. has repeatedly shown a disregard for the regional interests of the GCC countries. The Gulf states need to chart out a plan to support the Syrian economy, prevent the implosion of the Syrian state and alleviate the suffering of civilians. A special vehicle benefiting from high-level political support could be set up to realize this goal. Swift action is needed, but it must be governed by humanitarian principles and mechanisms that guarantee that aid is not siphoned off by regime cronies. Aid must benefit Syrians across the map and be focused on the needs of civilians. Financial support for rehabilitation and reconstruction must be chiefly focused on the areas that suffered the most devastation, allowing people to return and easing the pressure that the presence of Syrian refugees have placed on countries in the region. The GCC countries can seek Russian support to ensure that this aid goes to the right places, rather than to the pockets of regime elites and its militias.

Secondly, GCC countries must intensify their engagement with Russia to nudge the Syrian government towards acceptable compromises and objectives. These compromises probably will not address sensitive issues such as a future political transition, but rather will focus on areas of political participation, a limited degree of power-sharing, the release of detainees, the return of refugees, and safeguarding the rights of displaced persons.

Finally, no matter how objectionable it may feel, (a guarded) engagement with the Assad government is inescapable, and the recent talks about reinstating Syria’s membership in the Arab League should not remain a subject of press conferences. However, any GCC-Syrian détente must be strategically in support of the aforementioned objectives aimed at securing their interests and role in post-war Syria and helping Syrian civilians.

The Assad regime is unquestionably a malign actor, and a certain reluctance to engage with them is understandable. But ten years of war is enough, and Syrians deserve better. By helping ordinary Syrians – even at the expense of losing a certain moral high ground in not dealing with the Assad regime – the GCC would pursue their strategic interests, and also do much to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people. In the long run, the benefits of this engagement – both moral and strategic – will far exceed the costs.

Mohammad Kanfash is an independent researcher and analyst working on Syria. Mohammad is a member of the advisory board of ‘Intimacies of Remote warfare’ project at Utrecht University. He previously worked as a protection officer with the United Nations refugee agency in Syria, Egypt and the Netherlands.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Mohammad Kanfash is an independent researcher and analyst working on Syria. Mohammad is a member of the advisory board of ‘Intimacies of Remote warfare’ project at Utrecht University. He previously worked as a protection officer with the United Nations refugee agency in Syria, Egypt and the Netherlands. He is the founder and director of Damaan Humanitarian Organization, a Syrian-Dutch NGO that was active in besieged areas in the countryside of Damascus, and is currently based in Idlib, Syria.

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