The Gulf states have been closely involved in Syria since the uprising against President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime began in March 2011, providing high levels of political and financial support, as well as military assistance, to opposition groups battling Syrian government forces. Difficulties have arisen in cases where support has flowed to rival groups competing for power in Syria, or when assistance has been extended through myriad private or unregulated channels. These factors have not only contributed to the fragmentation of the Syrian National Coalition, which was never highly unified in the first place, but also complicated the situation on the ground. Over the past year, signs have emerged of a more cohesive Gulf approach as Saudi Arabia has assumed broad responsibility for engaging with the Syrian opposition, but the flows of unregulated support remain a challenge.
After nearly three years of conflict, the situation inside Syria has deteriorated to the extent that it now constitutes one of the worst humanitarian crises since the end of the Second World War. As the relative fortunes of the Assad regime and its opponents have ebbed and flowed, the shifting pattern of violence has left tens of thousands of people cut off from basic humanitarian aid. Acute hardship and starvation have taken root in besieged communities across Syria, while the numbers of displaced people both internally and as refugees in neighboring countries continues to soar. With the official opposition being undercut by more radical extremist groups such as the Al-Nusra Front and the ISIS, support for the opposition is now framed in far more nuanced and uncertain terms by regional and international partners alike.
With all of this in mind, the nascent political process takes on added urgency for all participants, but especially for the Gulf states. Their geographical proximity and heavy involvement in Syria’s conflict gives them a direct stake in the outcome of any eventual peace process. Moreover, their many cross-border ties mean that developments inside Syria will inevitably have ramifications across the region, including in the Gulf. Syria’s unfortunate position at the heart of the region’s geopolitical fault-lines gives further significance to trends within the country, as external actors play upon and magnify internal differences in a destabilizing round of cat-and-mouse.
An immediate way for the Gulf states to engage more productively in Syria would be through greater aid and development assistance. By virtue of their linguistic and socio-cultural similarities, Gulf actors are closer natural partners than many international or multilateral humanitarian agencies, and moreover have records of supporting Arab and Islamic causes that go back decades. In this regard, they can play an important bridging role between local and international agencies in Syria and its neighbors. Helping to contain and alleviate the human crisis at the heart of the Syrian civil war would generate considerable “soft power” within the international community and address some of the concerns that have recently been raised about Gulf influence in the country.
In order for the Gulf states to engage optimally with this next phase of the Syrian crisis, they will have to overcome several obstacles. The first is the existence of parallel tracks of official state aid and unofficial private channels of support to groups and individuals inside Syria, while the second is the possibility that a political solution might not involve the departure of the Assad regime from office in its entirety. This would be a bitter pill to swallow, as would any recognition that Iran must be included in a regional dialogue on Syria and other pressing issues. The next few weeks will tell us much about whether the Gulf states are ready to take such steps or not.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.