Syria has dominated the Gulf foreign policy scene in the last two weeks. This month marks the start of the Syrian Civil War a decade ago, and the latest relevant diplomatic manoeuvre was a visit to the Sultanate of Oman by Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs Faisal Al-Miqdad, preceded by a tour of the Gulf by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Special Envoy for Syrian settlement Alexander Lavrentiev.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia changed their approach to the Syrian crisis over two years ago. In that time Qatar has continued on its course of supporting militant groups seeking to topple President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, siding more with Turkey. Meanwhile Oman kept to the middle path as always, not taking sides.
Miqdad’s visit to Muscat took place within days of the Russian diplomats visiting Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Doha. At the last stop, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu joined Lavrov and their Qatari counterpart in launching “a new trilateral consultation process in an attempt to promote a political solution to Syria’s 10-year conflict”, as Cavusoglu announced from the Qatari capital.
Though Russia is the main international backer of the Syrian government, Damascus is wary of the Qatari-Turkish alliance as Doha is the only Gulf country condoning Turkey’s occupation of Syrian territories and sharing Ankara’s support for militant groups in northwestern Syria. That is why Syria sent its foreign minister to Oman in an attempt to counterbalance the Gulf stance towards any possible settlement of the internal conflict in the war-torn country.
According to the Oman News Agency (ONA), Miqdad “describes the Sultanate’s positions on the Syrian crisis and regional and international issues as positive and accurate because they are inspired by the enlightened thought of His Majesty Sultan Haitham Bin Tarik… We appreciate the Omani efforts seeking to end the suffering of the Syrian people and Oman’s support for the restoration of stability in Syria”. That diplomatic statement might not reflect what was actually discussed when Miqdad met Sayed Asaad Bin Tarik Al Said, deputy prime minister for International Relations and Cooperation Affairs.
The most notable position was from the Saudi capital expressing agreement with Emirati and Egyptian calls for the need to bring Syria back into the Arab League and push for a political settlement. Besides Lavrov’s visit and meetings with Saudi officials, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman met with the Russian Special Envoy for Syrian settlement Alexander Lavrentiev in Riyadh.
A day before, in Abu Dhabi, UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, said that Syria’s return to the Arab fold is “inevitable”, adding that Syria’s return to the Arab League is in the interest of Syria and other countries in the region. In a press conference with Lavrov, he said: “The Caesar Act is the biggest challenge facing joint work with Syria”, referring to a US law that imposes sanctions on anyone dealing with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
Some analysts interpreted the Emirati and Saudi position as “a coded message to Washington”. They are ready to ignore American sanctions on Syria if President Joe Biden’s administration ignores Gulf concerns about Iran.
But a Dubai-based Saudi commentator told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Saudi and Emirati position on Syria is consistent with the wider Arab position as the Egyptian foreign minister clearly stated it in a recent Arab League meeting in Cairo. “There are no coded messages. You cannot leave the fate of an Arab country to be decided by others while leading Gulf and Arab countries to a standstill. Political settlement in Syria would put an end to Erdogan’s aggression,” he added.
A recent paper by the European Council of Foreign Relations titled “How the Turkey-UAE rivalry is remaking the Middle East” suggested that UAE and Saudi Arabia might use their support for the Kurds in northern Syria to face Turkey’s military intervention. It notes how both Gulf countries shifted their position on Syria since late 2018, stopping any backing of militant groups, especially those related to Muslim Brotherhood and supported by Turkey and Qatar.
Despite the resolution of the Qatar crisis, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh would not tolerate any solution in Syria that gives the Brotherhood and its terrorist offshoots a future role in the country. The UAE was the first Gulf country to resume relations with Damascus in late 2018. Saudi Arabia is still concerned about Iranian presence and influence in Syria. But if the Russians are leading political settlement efforts Riyadh might be more open to change its stand, as a Western commentator on Gulf issues puts it: “It is a long shot for Saudis to accept dealing with Assad. Yet, opposition to increased Turkish hegemony in Syria is stronger.”
The rest of the Gulf countries are not quite as involved in the Syrian matter. For example, Kuwait would traditionally adopt any agreed Arab position. Though Kuwaiti charities still send “humanitarian assistance” through Turkey into Syria, it is more likely to end up aiding militants. Oman is almost neutral and keeps contact with Damascus and all other concerned parties. So, it is mainly Qatar that supports Turkey and militants on one side, and on the other side the UAE and Saudi Arabia are now supporting political settlement and Syria’s return to the Arab fold.
It might be early to expect an end to the war in Syria, with militant and terrorist factions regrouping, Turkish military occupations in areas where Islamist groups dominate and an American administration that is probably tolerant of Islamists playing a part in the region.
Yet a transition in the Saudi and Emirati position away from supporting Syrian militants and towards Damascus would almost definitely accelerate political change.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly