This piece is part of the Global Dynamics of the Syrian Conflict series, in which Carnegie experts from all over the world analyze the strategic and geopolitical interests at play in the ongoing civil war. View the full series here.
The Gulf is far from a monolithic force, and Gulf policies toward Syria are complex, driven by a number of factors ranging from sectarian divides to power politics. Still, there are some clear commonalities and divergences when it comes to the Gulf states’ interests, activities, and prospects in Syria.
Varied Interests in Syria
Saudi Arabia’s strategic rivalry with Iran is the principal geopolitical interest driving its intervention in Syria. The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has long had close ties to Shia Iran, which has been an affront to Sunni Saudi Arabia’s claim to Arab leadership on Levantine and Palestinian issues. Prior to 2011, Riyadh had unsuccessfully used a mix of diplomatic pressure and persuasion to try to wrest Syria from Iran’s orbit.
The anti-Assad uprising offered Saudi Arabia a new opportunity to roll back Iran’s influence in the Arab world. It was a chance to recover from the humiliating “loss” of Iraq after Nouri al-Maliki became prime minister. And, perhaps more importantly, it was a chance to redeem itself for the loss of Lebanon, where Iranian ally Hezbollah has dominated its Saudi-backed Sunni rivals.
Riyadh now seeks a stable Sunni authoritarian regime in Damascus that will be a natural partner for the Gulf and will break the longtime Iran-Hamas-Hezbollah axis of resistance.
While Saudi Arabia’s calculations in the Syrian conflict are primarily about the balance of power, there is a normative dimension as well. The war has become “sectarianized,” and the slaughter of Sunnis in Syria has created enormous pressure on the Saudi ruling family to intervene given its claim to Islamic leadership.
There are a number of other reasons for Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the Syrian war, all with high stakes for Riyadh’s regional standing and domestic security. Saudi Arabia seeks to blunt the rise of transnational al-Qaeda-affiliated actors with the capability and intent to threaten the kingdom. At the same time, Riyadh is eager to ensure that Muslim Brotherhood factions within the Syrian opposition are kept marginalized in any post-Assad settlement.
Saudi Arabia has also used the Syrian war to reassert its primacy within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and, in particular, check the growing assertiveness of Qatar. Less explicitly, some Saudi commentators have spoken of the conflict as a litmus test for the emergence of a new, Saudi-led regional order, marked by the growing diminution of U.S. influence.
The interests of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain in Syria have aligned closely with those of Saudi Arabia. Both states are keen to counter Iranian and Brotherhood influence in Syria. The UAE in particular has taken an interest in trying to insulate Lebanon and Jordan from the spillover of the war.
Among the smaller Gulf states, Qatar’s interests in Syria reflect a more complex mix of geostrategic, economic, and domestic concerns as well as the personal ambitions of its leaders. Prior to 2011, Doha had enjoyed relatively good relations with Assad. Given the fact that Qatar shares its primary source of wealth—the South Pars/North Dome gas field—with Iran, it sought to maintain cordial relations with Tehran’s lone Arab ally, Syria. Qatari investors had also parked millions in Syria’s real estate sector. Despite these once-friendly ties, Qatar intervened in the conflict with the aim of projecting its influence in the region by backing what it perceived to be the strongest contender for influence in Syria: the Muslim Brotherhood.
Kuwait is cautious when it comes to the conflict, reflecting the powerful presence of Shia merchant families in its parliament who oppose Syria’s increasingly sectarian Sunni opposition and who have, in some cases, lobbied for aid to the Assad government because of long-standing familial or religious ties. Faced with such divisions, Kuwait’s ruling Al Sabah family has tried to steer a careful path that avoids making the Syria file a source of polarization among an already deeply divided citizenry.
Gulf Policies in Syria
Gulf policies in Syria have incorporated a blend of diplomacy, massive financial assistance, training, and lethal support. Much of the intervention has been informed by two distinctive characteristics of Gulf diplomacy: a highly personalized approach whereby key portfolios are managed exclusively by a few princes and trusted advisers, and the ability of informal or semiofficial actors like clerics, charities, and tribal leaders to either act on behalf of the state, exert pressure on it, or pursue their own initiatives outside of the government’s control.
The net result of these twin dynamics has been unpredictable and frequently contradictory policies. Royal one-upmanship can produce erratic swings like Saudi Arabia’s impetuous rejection of a seat on the UN Security Council. And clerical freelancers and entrepreneurs pursue policies at odds with those of their government, illustrated most starkly by Kuwaiti Salafists’ funding of Jabhat al-Nusra.
Saudi Arabia has been largely wary of great power diplomatic initiatives on Syria, seeing in them at best a dangerous naïveté about the resilience of the Assad regime and at worst a deliberate conspiracy by America to sacrifice the anti-Assad opposition on the altar of the Iranian nuclear deal.
Believing that local and especially Arab states must take the lead, Saudi Arabia has worked through a variety of regional intermediaries to influence the leadership balance in the Syrian opposition, marginalize al-Qaeda-linked factions, mitigate infighting among its allies, and improve the quality of the opposition’s battlefield performance through training and the shipment of advanced weaponry. It set up a joint Saudi, Qatari, and Turkish operations room in Istanbul, channeled funds through intermediaries in Lebanon’s Future Movement, coordinated military training with Jordan, brokered arms shipments from Croatia, and reportedly solicited Pakistan’s assistance in training. Among the dizzying array of factions on the ground, it is often difficult to discern Riyadh’s support given both the shifting nature of that assistance and the opacity of Saudi foreign policy.
Qatar, meanwhile, has emerged at the forefront of the Gulf’s support to Syrian opposition. It has leveraged its leadership in the Arab League and its tremendous natural gas wealth in its efforts. By the summer of 2013, Riyadh was moving to seize the Syria file from Doha’s hands, Qatar was facing mounting opposition in the Gulf to its patronage of the Brotherhood, and a new and much younger Qatari emir was pursuing a policy of retrenchment and recalibration.
Saudi Arabia’s rivalry with Qatar has stirred discord and paralysis within the leadership of the Syrian opposition. Saudi Arabia backs Ahmad al-Jarba, head of the opposition National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. The former chief of the Free Syrian Army, Salim Idris, was ousted after he fell out of favor with Jarba because of his coziness with Qatar. Idris’s replacement, Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir, reportedly enjoys Saudi support. And the Saudi government allegedly supports the northern-based Syria Revolutionaries’ Front, another rebel alliance. The front’s head, Jamal Maarouf, claimed to have received $4 million in funding from Saudi Arabia and the United States.
The first half of 2014 saw a shift in Saudi Syria policy toward greater alignment with the United States and a greater appreciation of the threat of al-Qaeda blowback. In March, reports surfaced of increased Saudi cooperation with the CIA on the training and equipping of Syrian opposition fighters. The support falls under the broader rubric of a new U.S.-Saudi-Jordanian strategy, with the principal recipient of aid being the recently formed, allegedly moderate Southern Front. In April, the kingdom’s point man on Syria, then intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan, was removed from his post. His replacement with a longtime U.S. counterterrorism ally and former Ministry of Interior chief, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, was widely seen as signaling a new phase in Saudi-U.S. cooperation in Syria, particularly against jihadi extremism. But efforts by Saudi Arabia and, increasingly, the United States to impart coherence to the “moderate” Syrian opposition have been offset by the influx of unofficial funds—often from private businessmen—flowing to more radical actors.
Unlike Riyadh, the UAE is not believed to be sending arms directly to Syria’s rebels. It has instead positioned itself as a key provider of humanitarian aid. Beginning in 2011, for instance, the UAE dramatically ramped up its humanitarian aid to Jordan—jumping from $33 million in 2009 and 2010 combined to $206 million in 2011 and $263 million in 2012. (And there were reports in late 2013 and early 2014 of increased UAE military aid to Lebanon.) The UAE also serves as an important financial and logistical hub for the Syrian opposition, and it has cracked down on UAE-based Shia and expatriate Lebanese who are believed to be providing funds to Assad and Hezbollah.
Kuwait has officially opposed arming Syria’s rebels, focusing instead on hosting large donor conferences and establishing itself as a principal humanitarian patron of Syria’s embattled citizenry. Kuwait has emerged as what one senior U.S. official called the “epicenter of terrorist financing in Syria.” It has been a major source of funding for al-Qaeda factions within the Syrian opposition. Entire rebel brigades have been named for Kuwaiti financiers, and military operations have been launched at their behest. The main drivers of this aid are Kuwait’s Salafi charities, clerics, and politicians, whose affinity with the radical factions in the Syrian opposition reflects common bonds of tribe and religious doctrine as well as a shared sectarian and anti-Iranian outlook.
As in Kuwait, Bahrain’s sectarian divide has influenced its policies on Syria. Bahraini Salafists, often acting outside the government’s authority, have organized humanitarian aid for the Syrian opposition. Some of this aid is reported to have been used for weapons for more radical Sunni elements, and Bahraini Salafists have died in combat in Syria.
Concerns About a Continuation of the Conflict
The Gulf sees the continuation of the Syrian conflict and each day that Assad remains in power as a de facto victory for Iran and Hezbollah. Saudi commentators have consistently warned that if the current Syrian regime remains, it will be a stronghold for Iranian influence in “our Arab Levant,” as one Saudi wrote. And Saudi fear is not limited to the Levant—Assad’s survival, they believe, will cement Iran’s control in Iraq as well and consequently establish its dominance in the Persian Gulf.
There are also mounting domestic security concerns. The Gulf states are increasingly worried that the influx of Gulf volunteers into Syria will produce new cadres of al-Qaeda militants who will return home and destabilize the Gulf. To counter this, they have pursued a number of legal, media, and cleric-related initiatives. Saudi Arabia has been especially vigorous on this front: In early 2014, the kingdom promulgated a series of sweeping regulations that criminalized participation in the Syrian conflict and banned the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra, labeling them terrorist organizations. As early as mid-2012, clerical efforts to raise funds for humanitarian aid outside of official channels began to be shut down by Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior.
The Gulf states have also muzzled or imprisoned outspoken Salafi clerics exhorting participation in the Syrian jihad while mobilizing quietist and pro-regime clerics to dissuade young men from fighting. Saudi clerics, from the relatively progressive to the more hardline figures, have generally towed the Saudi line on Syria. Gulf Sunni clerics have also weighed in on the growing fissures between jihadist factions in Syria, with the majority denouncing ISIS while remaining equivocal or supportive of Jabhat al-Nusra.
Despite the regime’s efforts to rein them in, Saudi clerics and fighters are still at work on the ground in Syria. In January 2014, for instance, Abdullah Muhammad al-Muhaysani a popular Saudi cleric active on Syria’s front lines, launched the Umma Initiative to resolve infighting between ISIS and other rebel factions. It garnered over 20,000 signatures online, with over 12,000 of them recorded as being from Saudi Arabia.
Although the first half of 2014 saw a greater convergence of U.S.-Gulf strategies and goals in Syria, it is unlikely that the Gulf will act in complete lockstep with America. The informal and personalized nature of Gulf foreign policy, combined with the highly factionalized Syrian opposition, makes channeling aid to so-called moderate groups quite problematic.
With regard to Iran, the recent steps by the Gulf toward engagement with the Islamic Republic are unlikely to extend to a broader détente or mutual de-escalation on Syria. Although both sides fear the resurgence of al-Qaeda, the Gulf states have few incentives to offer Iran in return for its disengagement from a conflict that the Revolutionary Guards and regime hardliners regard as a pivotal moment for Iranian primacy in the region. Moreover, in the wake of the Joint Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program and the lifting of sanctions, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf may actually increase their involvement in Syria to preempt any surge in belligerence from an emboldened Iran.
All told, Gulf policies in Syria will continue to be shaped by the security concerns and unique domestic contexts of the individual Gulf states. Despite some Saudi-led efforts to impart coherence, competition between formal and informal actors and among the Gulf states will contribute to factionalism and radicalism within the Syrian opposition.