Wednesday, 23 November 2011

How the GCC aims to benefit from the turmoil in Syria

This article was originally published today in The National newspaper. What is important to note is that the article is not meant to objectively endorse the GCC's actions but rather indicate how it is pursuing its regional interests through the crisis in Syria.

GCC positions for a stronger role in tomorrow's Syria

In 2006 when Israel invaded Lebanon, Syria's President Bashar Al Assad pointedly referred to fellow leaders - particularly in the Gulf - as "half men" for what he contended was their lack of support for Arabs under assault by Israel.

Five years later, the tables have turned as Mr Al Assad's own regime continues to assault Syrian civilians on a daily basis and it is the Gulf Cooperation Council that is at the forefront of criticising his failure to stop the killing and destruction.

In the past two weeks, the bloc's condemnation of Mr Al Assad and implied preference for regime change has led to attacks on its embassies by government supporters in Damascus. Yet in the long term, the GCC has the opportunity to truly facilitate a geopolitical shift in its favour in the region as long as it does not overplay its hand.

The president's father, Hafez Al Assad, was a shrewd politician always looking for an edge in the regional power game. The elder Al Assad saw an advantage in supporting Iran during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, turning against the fellow Baathist regime at the helm in neighbouring Iraq. Alongside Libya which also supported Iran, he put Syria at direct odds with the GCC, which was founded in 1981 largely to contest the perceived growing threat emanating from post-revolutionary Iran.

While the 1990s witnessed a slow detente between the GCC and Syria, in particular because of the latter's support for the US-led Gulf War, the geopolitical divisions re-emerged with the ascension of the younger Al Assad in 2000. Throughout the last decade, GCC leaders especially in Saudi Arabia found themselves at odds with the Syrian regime.

In Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq, Syria supported factions and policies that undermined the GCC's own position in those countries. Moreover, the continuing and strengthening alliance between Syria and Iran continued to be a cause of tremendous concern across the Gulf.

Despite the divergent interests, in the initial days of the uprising in Syria the GCC (and for that matter, most of the international community) remained relatively silent. While there was no love lost between GCC countries and Syria in recent years, there had been efforts to pursue a cooperative relationship on regional affairs. Before the uprising, that cooperation was most notable in the joint visit by Mr Al Assad and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah to Beirut in June 2010.

Since the March uprising, however, the growing violence and daily death toll pushed GCC nations to take a leadership position within the Arab League to condemn and further isolate Syria. The latest deadline for Damascus to end violence expired on Saturday, and the Arab League has crisis talks on Thursday.
GCC interests in Syria have now been framed in terms of a humanitarian position. This is in part a response to the sectarian dynamic in the country, where protests are largely seen as coming from within the Sunni majority. But more importantly, there is a regional political balance that is emerging.

So far, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been the most vocal critics of Damascus's behaviour, and in turn they have been subjected to the harshest Syrian attacks. Since Syria was suspended from the Arab League earlier this month, relations have got steadily worse. Pro-regime supporters have attacked embassies in Damascus, including the UAE's.

While the attacks and rhetoric aimed at the GCC may be harsh in the short term, if and when the Assad regime falls in Syria, there will probably be long-term rewards for the bloc. In term of the regional political balance, Syria will move farther away from Iran and look towards the GCC for support in terms of policy and governance.

Furthermore, ordinary Syrians and opposition members will be aware of the leadership position taken by the GCC - the significance of the Arab League suspension was the effect on Syrians' support for the regime more than international opinion. If GCC is careful not to abuse its influence, there will be more opportunities, both economic and political, as Syria opens up.

Given the continued violence and grim prospects for the Assad regime, it only makes sense for the GCC to strengthen its position, challenging human rights abuses by the regime and building closer relations with opposition groups in the Syrian National Council and the National Coordinating Committee.

In the coming months, the situation in Syria will probably become increasingly violent. The role of foreign powers will also become all the more complex to balance intervention on behalf of protesters' welfare and political change. Even while supporting change in Syria, GCC countries will have to work to curtail a more deadly civil war, which may mean exerting pressure on allies in the opposition.

It is difficult to see in the long term how Mr Al Assad can possibly outlast these protests. When he finally does depart from the scene, the GCC will have to temper its involvement and not overplay its hand. Syria has always been subject to foreign interference, and Syrians are naturally averse to manipulation from outside. Although today the dire situation confronting Syrian citizens has opened the door for external support, it will not always be welcome, especially if it is unsolicited, in the new politics of the future.

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