The Gulf and regime change
The Gulf countries have supported the Syrian opposition since the beginning of the uprising in the belief that it will bring about the end of the Al-Assad regime, writes Prasanta Kumar Pradhan
Ever since the protests started against the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, the Gulf countries have adopted a tough posture by criticising and condemning the reactions of the Syrian government and squarely putting the blame upon it for the unfolding situation.
The Gulf monarchies, which have suppressed protests in their own countries and have been against any kind of regime change in their own region, have accused the Al-Assad regime of killings and violating human rights and have questioned the regime's legitimacy to continue its rule. With the protests against the Al-Assad regime turning increasingly violent, and the Syrian regime's strong military response, the political dynamics in the region have become more intricate.
The GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries have their own reasons to believe that regime change in Damascus is necessary. They do not enjoy a warm relationship with Syria; instead, they see it as a strategic ally of Iran, which could have the potential to undermine their own dominance in the region.
Also, Al-Assad, an Alawite Shia, does not get along well with the Sunni rulers of the Gulf. Al-Assad and the Gulf countries have differences of opinion over regional issues such as Iraq, Iran and Lebanon. The proximity of the Gulf countries to the United States and the rivalry between the United States and the Al-Assad regime is another factor that fuels antipathy between the two.
Initially, the Gulf countries appealed to the Syrian government to stop the killings and to adopt adequate reform measures to meet the aspirations of the people. But by the time the Syrian government called for dialogue and reforms it was clearly too late for the regime to gain support from the people.
With the situation going from bad to worse, the Gulf countries exerted more political and diplomatic pressure on Syria and tried to internationalise the issue. They supported the Arab League proposal for bringing about peace in Syria, as well as the mission of Kofi Annan and his six-point formula, which was later adopted by the UN as a roadmap for bringing peace and stability to the country. The Gulf countries have also given their political support to all the US-backed resolutions in the UN Security Council against the Al-Assad regime.
But given that none of these initiatives have worked, in order to exert further pressure the Gulf countries then decided to recall their ambassadors from Damascus and also to expel Syrian envoys from their countries. They also withdrew their representatives from the Arab League observer mission in Syria.
The Gulf countries' attempts to internationalise the Syrian crisis are intended to remove al-Assad from power. At present, none of them have any concrete proposal as to who should succeed Al-Assad. But despite the ambiguity surrounding the next probable leadership, the GCC countries still want a Syria without Al-Assad at the top. They are certain to push for a Sunni leader and regime, which would increase their influence in Syria. At the same time, a weakened Syria minus Al-Assad would lead to a substantial decrease in Iranian influence in Syria and in the region as a whole.
Iran has maintained strong ties with the Al-Assad regime, and it is seen by the GCC countries as a potential threat to their strategic interests in the region. The Iran-Syria relationship is an important pillar of the "Shia arc" threatening traditional Sunni dominance in the region. The Shia resurgence of the last few years has been a major concern for the Sunni regimes in the Gulf. In their view, Iran has been the principal actor espousing Shia unity and joining hands with regimes like that of Al-Assad. The Iraq experience must have taught a lesson to the Gulf kingdoms, where Iran has significantly increased its influence in the post-Saddam period.
Two of the GCC countries, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have openly called for arming the Syrian rebels to fight against the regime's security forces. They believe that all kinds of political and diplomatic initiatives by regional and world powers have failed, and thus arming the rebels is the only option left to them.
Kuwait's parliament has passed a non-binding resolution calling on its government to arm the Syrian rebels. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal went so far as to say that arming the Syrian opposition was a "duty" as the opposition could not defend itself in the face of the violent crackdown by the regime's security forces.
By supporting the arming of the rebel forces, Saudi Arabia and Qatar seem to be suggesting a Libya-like solution to the Syrian crisis, removing Al-Assad by arming the rebels and installing another regime in power. But the Syrian government has from the beginning rejected any kind of external intervention in its internal affairs.
This position was most vocally stated by the Syrian ambassador to the UN, Bashar Jaafari, when he said that "Syria will not be Libya; Syria will not be Iraq; Syria will not be Somalia; Syria will not be a failing state." Thus, the intensity of the attempts by the Gulf countries to remove Al-Assad, and the equally intensive defiance by the regime, has persisted throughout the crisis.
The approach of the GCC countries towards the Syrian crisis has shifted from appealing for political reforms to internationalising the issue to arming the opposition. While the advice from the Gulf has fallen on deaf ears in Syria, and political and diplomatic attempts have not yet provided any concrete results, removing the regime by the use of force has come to the fore as a "doable" alternative in the thinking of some of the Gulf monarchies.
For them, this is the right opportunity to remove Al-Assad from power and install a friendly regime in Damascus. They have had partial success in their attempts to internationalise the issue and draw world attention to the wrongdoings of the Al-Assad regime. While Al-Assad's removal from power would make it easier for the Gulf countries to intervene in Syria's future political development and tilt the regional balance of power in their favour, Al-Assad's remaining in power will continue to pose challenges for them.
The writer is an associate fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.