You would be forgiven for thinking that the Syria crisis, with all that makes it one of the greatest tragedies of our time, could unite the Arab countries to come together as a united front to end the crisis. After all, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and other regional powers have all declared that they will not accept a Syria where Assad remains in power.
Instead, the crisis has not only served to expose the gulf in differences between the regional powers, but has also exacerbated them, bringing the countries more further apart than ever.
Put bluntly, none of these powers’ primary aim was to remove Assad. Nor were they particularly interested in the revolution in so far as it was a revolt against a system where the ‘ears had walls’ and opposition movements had experienced the full brutality of the state apparatus. Instead, each saw in the revolution a means by which to achieve some ulterior aim.
For Qatar, Syria was an extension of a project to become the leading power in the region by establishing the Muslim Brotherhood in each of the Arab Spring countries, using Aljazeera to capitalise and exacerbate the wave of irresistible anger that forced people to take to the streets. Tunisia lacked strategic value, Egypt had been lost to the military, Libya had been mired in NATO division over the war booty and the establishment of spheres of influence. But Syria, strategically, would have been the greatest prize, the jewel in the crown.
For Saudi Arabia, the matter was never about the revolution. The kingdom was more than happy to see a democratically elected president fall in Egypt and then spend billions seeking to convince the world that a military dictator was a good thing. Instead, Saudi Arabia’s greatest gripe with Assad was, and remains, his powerful ties to Iran and the access provided to the latter to equip Hezbollah in Lebanon, the political opponents of Saudi Arabia’s Lebanese ally Saad al-Hariri.
In other words, if Assad ended his alliance with the Iranians, then it is very likely the Saudis would have accepted a solution that included his retention of power.
However, it is this desire to break the Iranian ‘crescent’ in the region that has contributed to an incoherent policy on Syria, often lacking in vision, and prone to sudden shifts. One need only look at Saudi’s initial feud with Qatar that paralysed the Syrian political opposition, which somehow transformed into a sudden alliance which, with the inclusion of Turkey, resulted in significant gains for the Syrian opposition to the extent that Russia had to intervene with destructive force to prevent the impending fall of Assad.
The incoherence does not stop there. Following Russia’s intervention, Saudi then reeled back support for the Syrian opposition, sending delegates to Moscow seeking to negotiate an amicable relationship, capitalising on friction between Putin and Tehran. As Moscow appears to have rebuffed these approaches, and as the US continues to distance itself from the kingdom following the JASTA fiasco, Saudi Arabia has once more returned to Ankara to join hands again on Syria.
Any suggestion that the pumping of Gulf money into Egypt’s economy would result in a subservient and obedient government neglects the reality that Egypt and the Gulf have competed over the leadership of the Arabs for decades. Egypt’s aversion to such a subservient role was reflected in the leaked conversations between Sisi and other military generals speaking of Saudi Arabia in derogatory terms, as well as Egypt’s rather token contribution to Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen.
For Egypt, Sisi’s greatest frustration has been the US’s lack of public support with officials taking every opportunity to bring up the human rights situation and allude to the situation of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Moreover, the impact of the deteriorating economic situation has begun to temper the effects of his PR campaign that has sought to portray him as a Nasser-esque hero.
As a result, Sisi has courted Moscow, seeking to spite the US in a bid to force Obama to support his government and assist in the granting of much needed funds. This means that Sisi has sought to avoid upsetting Moscow with any anti-Assad rhetoric, echoing Putin and Lavrov’s rhetoric of the need for a political solution that includes ‘all parties’.
For the North African states, the view on Syria has been over-simplified in light of the chaos in Libya. Put simply, Assad should remain or else there will be another Libya. In Algeria in particular, the Arab Spring, initially met with much support amongst the public, is now seen as a means by which Western military forces have returned ‘to bomb Muslim lands’. There have been particular sensitivities towards France’s rather enthusiastic involvement not just in Syria, but in Mali as well. Such a swing in public opinion is reminiscent of the reaction to Operation Desert Storm in 1991, following which Algerian public opinion went from sympathising with Kuwait, to backing Saddam Hussein’s invasion.
Nevertheless, the focus on these differences implies that as a united bloc, the Arabs would have significant sway over the future of Syria. Whether that would be the case is questionable at best. Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s seemingly desperate search for a new superpower ally suggests a lack of confidence in their individual capabilities, and an aversion to taking any unilateral action in the region which might upset the wider balance of power. Furthermore, with Iran’s rise and smaller Arab states seeking warmer relations in light of the changing tides in the region, it appears that most are content simply to ride the new wave and align themselves accordingly.
In any event, with the situation as it is, the Arabs are at best third-tier decision makers, with the real power over Syria’s fate in the hands of Washington and Moscow.