A UK strategy for Syria?

By Christopher Phillips

These comments were first made at a Council for Arab British Understanding (CAABU) panel discussion at the UK Parliament, 4 November 2015


The first question we should ask is whether there has been a UK strategy for Syria so far. For four years UK policy on Syria has been confused and reactive, with many of its stated goals, including its desire to remove Assad from power, not matched by a capacity to achieve them. Instead, Britain has done more to fuel the civil war than resolve it.

Let’s go back to 2011: three things are worth recalling about when protests first emerged against the Assad regime in Syria. Firstly, Syria was a state over which the west had little leverage. It was in Russia and Iran’s sphere of influence, trade was limited and there were few personal ties with the elite or military, unlike, say, Egypt. Secondly, it was an era of military and financial retrenchment in the west. Obama had come to power determined to leave the Middle East while Britain was war weary from Iraq and cutting military spending. Thirdly, from the very beginning western leaders recognised the potential combustibility of Syria – its ethnically mixed population, its proximity to recent civil wars in Iraq, Lebanon and Kurdish Turkey, its large stock of chemical weapons and the potential for radical Jihadism. For these reasons leaders were slow to condemn Assad when his forces gunned down unarmed protestors, urging him for months to reform.

None of those conditions changed, and yet in August 2011, five months after protests began, the UK joined with President Obama and other western leaders in calling for Assad to stand down. This was a political decision. The British, French and American ambassadors in Damascus were all reporting home that Assad was not likely to fall anytime soon, having sufficient support among Syria’s military, Middle classes and ethnic minorities. However, this decision was overruled by elected leaders, including in the UK, who felt under pressure to act and ‘do the right thing’.

This locked Britain into an anti-Assad policy – which it is still locked in – that it had only limited capacity to achieve. The UK tried to persuade the Americans on several occasions to deploy greater military pressure, but Obama was already reluctant to be dragged into another unwinnable quagmire like Iraq and he saw the instability of post-war Libya – the last conflict he had been persuaded into. It tried to pressure Assad through sanctions, but Syria was not integrated enough into the global economy nor had an economic elite independent of the regime for this to prompt any internal coup. It tried UN Security Council resolutions, but Syria’s old ally Russia protected it. It worked with the Syrian opposition in exile, but having no historical relationship had to start from scratch and struggled to overcome the deep personal and political divisions that prevented it from becoming a united and effective force.

Britain and the west declared a policy of regime change, yet lacked the capacity and will to bring it about, but the actors in the region didn’t know that. Of course, little was done to dispel their misperceptions that the west could intervene any day – indeed it was (wrongly) hoped that the implicit threat behind calling for Assad to go might prompt a scared elite to turn against him. Convinced that western intervention, like that seen in Libya, would eventually come, Qatar and Turkey and eventually Saudi Arabia helped arm rebel forces against Assad with the tacit approval of Britain and the West. The opposition already favoured a zero sum view of the conflict, that Assad must go, but they were encouraged to maintain it by their regional supporters and, indeed Britain. At the two peace conferences on Syria thus far, in 2012 and 2014, the UK along with other western leaders reaffirmed their uncompromising stance that Assad must go as a precondition – contributing to their failure.

Western commitment to regime change impacted Assad’s allies too. Russia and Iran, already strong supporters of Damascus, saw in the west’s August 2011 declaration a move to try to pull Syria from their influence. This redoubled their determination to ensure the regime survived or, at least prevent Syria from falling into enemy hands. Yet the difference for Assad’s friends was they were defending their regional position and were willing to commit much more to the fight than Assad’s enemies. Both Russia and Iran have risked their regional reputations, large sums of money, and their own troops, while Assad’s enemies have deployed financial and political support only.

The result of this is a balanced conflict: all the external actors have helped fuel a war that neither side is likely to win. The limited capacity and will of each state means they are able to provide enough support to keep the war going, but not enough to tip the balance. At the same time no state is hurting enough from their involvement to prompt a change in policy. Indeed, despite optimistic hopes that Iran and Russia will soon reach a ‘breaking point’ Russia’s recent deployment of air power and Iran’s sending more troops illustrates that both states have a long way to go before that happens. Moreover, for all the states involved, the Syrian civil war is just one piece in a wider picture: the Iran-Saudi regional rivalry, Turkey’s relationship with the Kurds, Russia’s bid for great power recognition and, of course, the west’s clash with ISIS. The question is whether anyone is willing to make concessions on their wider goals to stop Syria’s war.

So that brings us to what the UK can do now. I don’t have a specific plan but I think that given the mistakes and miscalculations outlined so far, three things in particular should be encouraged.

Firstly, Britain should recognise that its capacity in Syria is limited. It acts like it has a big mouth but a small stomach, declaring big intentions but without the ability to fulfil them. Of all the players in the civil war, Britain’s leverage is among the smallest. It has largely mimicked the US’ position, but this has not translated into much influence. Rather than being a US echo chamber Britain would do better to act as an innovator – proposing or trialling ideas initially unpalatable to its ally the US, such as brokering talks with controversial actors. Alternatively, Britain could use its profile to spotlight aspects of the conflict missed by other actors. William Hague did this by highlighting sexual violence and initially the UK was making loud noises about Syria’s refugees, before its negative attitude to the extension of that crisis to Europe undid much of this good work.

Secondly, Britain must not be involved in any escalation of the conflict. The war has seen a steady pattern of escalation and counter-escalation by states supporting and opposing Assad. Four years of war has shown that there is no military solution as, every time Assad’s enemies make gains, his allies counter, and the danger is this will go on until there is no Syria left to fight over. Britain must use what limited leverage it has to urge de-escalation upon the region and certainly not contribute by launching military moves itself. Engaging in the Vienna peace process is a start. Britain should lead by example and abandon its self imposed zero sum call for Assad to go as a precondition. It is from concessions such as this that confidence building measures, such as ceasefires and halts to barrel bombing can be obtained from Russia and Iran.

Thirdly, Britain must think long term. The potential for Syria’s uprising to turn into a civil war, the refugee crisis and the rise of ISIS were all visible from a long way off, yet next to nothing was done about it. Today, there are other clear fallouts from the war needing attention including instability in Syria’s neighbouring states and the unknown fate of Syria’s refugees which, if left untreated, could be the source of the next crisis. Ensuring all Syrian refugee children get a proper education, for example, would be a way to avoid their future radicalisation, and building schools is cheaper (and more effective) than dropping bombs.

Such vision and innovation has so far been absent from the UK, and consequently it has contributed far more to fuelling the war than it has to resolving it. A re-evaluation is therefore sorely needed.

Syria’s Refugees: When did the West become so heartless?

Recently I went to see Miss Saigon at the West End, a tragic musical set in the years after the Vietnam War. In one scene, the lead characters flee on a crowded boat full of migrants from dictatorship and violence in their homeland, risking their lives in search of safety. This suddenly began to look familiar. For those who have followed the Syrian civil war since its outbreak in 2011 the story is sadly well known: millions have fled, thousands by boat, but without the singing, dancing and comic relief. My interest piqued: how was the Indochina refugee crisis dealt with and what might we learn for Syria? Even a cursory investigation showed there was one standout difference between then and now: the western governments of that era put today’s leaders to shame.

(Syrian migrants rescued - Image from UNHCR)

(Syrian migrants rescued – Image from UNHCR)

The late 1970s saw a massive refugee crisis in Indochina. Communist takeovers in South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, along with Vietnam’s wars with its neighbours created millions of refugees. By 1979 over a million had fled, mostly to Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, who housed them in camps. In the first six months of 1979 alone 209,000 refugees had arrived, including many ‘boat people’ that died making the perilous journey. Malaysia and Thailand, both overwhelmed, declared they would take no more. At the invitation of the UN Secretary General in July 1979, 65 countries came together at a conference where Western states agreed to accept 260,000 refugees a year. In the space of 18 months, more than 450,000 Indochinese refugees were resettled from camps to new homes in the west, mostly in the US, Canada, France and Australia.

The scale of the Syria refugee crisis dwarfs that of Indochina. There are currently over 4 million Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR who, like the Indochinese have fled a vicious conflict and brutal dictatorship (whether Assad or ISIS) mostly to neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. As these countries have become overwhelmed and increased restrictions on the refugees, thousands have resorted to boats across the Mediterranean hoping to make it to the EU. In a sad retelling of the Indochinese tragedy , today Europe has its own ‘boat people’ risking their lives to flee. According to UNHCR Syrians make up by far the largest number of the boat people, with the number crossing to the Greek islands close to Turkey peaking this summer. 160,000 migrants have crossed to Greece since January, 20,843 alone. In contrast 27,000 were arriving by boat per month at the height of the Indochinese crisis.

So where is the UN Secretary General and the conference to resettle Syria’s refugees the way western countries so admirably did in 1979? In December last year UNHCR asked members to pledge resettlement for 130,000 Syrians – half that asked for (and met) in the Indochina crisis. Yet the response was lukewarm at best. As of August 2015 73,863 places had been promised by western countries. A handful of states shouldered most, with Germany promising 35,000 places, Canada taking 10,000 and Norway 9,000. The US has offered a separate ‘open-ended resettlement’ to 16,286. Sweden’s relatively low 2,700 should not mask that it with Germany has so far hugely outstripped other EU members’ efforts (Sweden has 40,000, Germany 100,000). The most shameful figures came from France and Britain, two states that have been heavily involved in the Syria conflict, with France offering only 1000 places and Britain only 197 in its Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme. While many Syrians have come to Britain and France independently and then successfully claimed asylum, these are mostly the wealthy and/or educated and not the same as resettling refugees. This does little to ease the burden on those states hosting the most in need.

So what has changed? Why were western states willing to resettle four times as many Indochinese refugees a year in 1979 as they have been willing to house in total from Syria? Westerners are no worse off or less capable of hosting refugees than they were in the late 70s. Taking arguably the worst offender, Britain, as an example, the economic situation then was not dissimilar to now. In 1979-82 Britain suffered a recession, far worse than the sluggish growth it has faced during the height of the Syria refugee crisis (2012-15). GDP per capita averaged $9k, comparable in today’s prices to the $40k it averaged in 2012-15, while unemployment averaged 7.5%, compared to 7.3% in 2012-15. In another parallel, in May 1979 a Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher came to power on a platform of rolling back the state, one seemingly emulated by David Cameron and George Osbourne today. Yet that government accepted nearly 25,000 Indochinese refugees, compared to 197 from Syria now.

Two things stand out when comparing government attitudes to Syria’s refugees and those of Indochina. Firstly, there was a greater recognition of the refugees’ victim status. States with few historical ties to Indochina such as Canada (and indeed Britain) were willing to provide refuge (and relief for the overwhelmed host countries) out of a sense of moral duty. Today, that moral duty extends only to funding the host countries – Britain points to its generosity in this regard when deflecting from its poor resettling record. Yet politicians including the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary don’t hesitate to use dehumanizing language about asylum seekers approaching their shores.

Secondly, the western sense of responsibility for the refugees’ plight that drove proceedings in 1979 seems absent today. The US, which had a military presence in Vietnam for decades and bombed Cambodia and Laos, eventually took over 1 million Indochinese from 1979-97, while another combatant, Australia, took 185,000 and the former colonial master, France, over 100,000. Each seemed to implicitly accept some responsibility for the mess. Today, the US, Britain and France have all contributed to Syria’s civil war, providing political, economic, lethal and non-lethal support for the rebels. They may claim this was the morally right thing to do against Assad’s onslaughts, yet won’t extend the same morality to resettling the conflict’s refugees. Moreover, many of the destabilizing forces driving violence in Syria today – Jihadism, sectarianism, regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia – were the product of or greatly exacerbated by the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US and Britain.

Of course many of the other states who have helped fuel the war in Syria are just as bad, with Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, having resettled barely any refugees (the Gulf states house many Syrians but, like Britain and France, mostly wealthier and skilled workers who have arrived independently). Yet this is not an excuse for a lack of leadership from western states and it would be much easier to pressure those states to accept more refugees once the west has done likewise. After years of refusing to deal with the problem, it is high time western leaders rediscovered the spirit of 1979 and took the lead.


Gulf Actors and the Syria Crisis

By Christopher Phillips

Published in The new politics of intervention of Gulf Arab states. (2015) Middle East Centre, London School of Economics and Political Science, Collected Papers, Volume 1.

The Syria crisis may have begun as a domestic struggle, but it quickly became a key arena of competition for regional and international rivals, with Gulf actors heavily involved. The Syrian civil war, as the crisis became when initially unarmed opposition took up arms in the face of violent repression by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, is frequently viewed as a proxy war. Iran and Russia, with support from Hezbollah and Iraq, stand with Assad, while the West, Turkey and the Gulf States support the various rebel groups. The war is also now frequently characterised as a sectarian conflict. Assad’s regime is dominated by members of his own Alawite sect, a distant branch of Shiism that made up 12% of Syria’s pre-war population, while the opposition are mostly from the underrepresented 65% Sunni Arabs. The rise of sectarian language, especially from radical Sunni Jihadists, and the perpetration of a number of sectarian massacres by both sides seem to confirm this characterisation. Sunni Gulf actors have added to, and even fuelled, this perception. The Gulf States, led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have leant considerable support to the Sunni-led opposition, but this has repeatedly been justified in their media outlets and to domestic audiences in sectarian terms with the Alawites and Shia demonised.[1] This overlap of a regional proxy war with clear sectarian undertones, has led many to interpret the Syrian Civil War as a battle in a wider primordial civilizational clash between Shias and Sunnis.[2]

This paper seeks to challenges some of these assumptions by examining the Gulf States’ policies toward the Syria Crisis. It focuses on three interrelated questions that contribute to this volume’s wider themes on the foreign policies of the GCC states. Firstly, what has been the impact of Gulf policy on the Syria crisis and how has it shaped the conflict? Secondly, have the Gulf States shown the capacity and capability to affect the course of conflict in a way that fulfils their goals? Thirdly, what role has sectarianism played in Gulf policy?

An immediate difficulty is what do we mean by ‘the Gulf’? I refer to ‘Gulf actors’ in the title of this paper to acknowledge that a significant role has been played by non-state actors in the Syria crisis, most notably Gulf charities and individuals who have donated considerable funds to militia fighting Assad. The extent to which these actions are independent of state policy must be considered, given the often overlapping sources of finance for the rebels. A second distinction must also be made when analysing the policies of state actors. Despite a degree of cooperation and a common goal in toppling Assad, the Gulf States have not acted in unity. In general there have been two approaches: that of Saudi Arabia, often followed by Bahrain and UAE, and that of Qatar. While other Gulf States have occasionally taken divergent paths, notably Kuwait, which has led international relief efforts on Syria’s refugees, this paper will focus primarily on the policies of Doha and Riyadh.

The paper is divided into three sections and a conclusion. Firstly it will offer context for Qatari and Saudi policy going into the Syria crisis, then consider their divergent aims once the conflict began, and how they have subsequently evolved. After this, the tools Gulf actors have deployed in Syria will be considered, from overt diplomatic action, to covert and later overt military assistance to anti-Assad rebel militia, as well as soft, ‘ideational’ power. Thirdly, the extent to which actors’ goals have been achieved will briefly be considered. In doing so, this paper aims to illustrate three central points about Gulf actors and the Syria crisis. Firstly, that the Gulf States revealed a limited capacity to achieve their goals, born from inexperience in proxy conflicts. Secondly, that the lack of unity and, at times, outright rivalry, between Saudi and Qatar has played a major role in their inability to topple the Assad regime. Finally, that sectarianism is far less important than perceived and is largely instrumentalised by actors to boost positions at home and abroad, while raison’s d’etat overwhelmingly dominate most calculations.

Context and aims

When Assad’s troops fired on crowds of protestors in the southern Syrian town of Deraa in March 2011, initiating the Syrian uprising, Saudi Arabia and Qatar were in contrasting geopolitical positions. In the previous decade, Qatar had become close to Syria. The Emir, Hamid bin Khalifa Al Thani, had played an active role alongside Turkey in breaking the US-led diplomatic boycott of Bashar al-Assad after his alleged involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005. In 2008 Qatar crowned Syria’s journey back from international exile by mediating the Doha Agreement, which effectively granted Syria’s allies dominance over Lebanese politics. Despite a long-standing relationship with Assad’s enemies, the exiled Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar took a pragmatic approach toward Syria as the Bush boycott came to an end.

Saudi Arabia, in contrast, had helped lead the boycott, Hariri having been a close ally of King Abdullah. Indeed, the 2008 Doha agreement was prompted by clashes between Saudi’s anti-Syrian Sunni Lebanese allies, the Future Movement, and Syria-backed, Hezbollah. This was the latest in a long line of strained ties that had worsened with the advent of the Syrian-Iranian alliance of 1979. Ideologically, the professed socialist Arab nationalism of Bashar and his father and predecessor, Hafez, clashes with the conservative Islamic monarchy of the Sauds, while the Alawite leadership in Damascus may seem a natural enemy to the self-declared guardians of Sunnism in Riyadh. However, this relationship has been far from static, and it is false to characterise it in either ideological or religious terms. In bad times it is true that Saudi has tended to back co-religionist opposition to Assad, whether Sunni politicians in Lebanon or the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, many of whom were welcomed in Saudi after their defeat and expulsion in 1982. However, in 1973 and 1990 the regimes formed a military alliance in the face of a common enemy, Israel and Iraq respectively, and Saudi expelled members of the pro-Saddam Syrian Muslim Brotherhood during the latter conflict. Typically of this fluctuating relationship, by 2009-10 Riyadh was seeking détente. Wikileak cables show that in 2009 Abdullah was hoping to woo Assad away from Iran rather than confront him, reflected by Bashar’s visit to Jeddah in September, and Abdullah’s return visit to Damascus the next month.[3] This reconciliation, however temporary, suggests Riyadh’s thinking has been more shaped by an interests-driven desire to contain Iran than any identity-driven opposition to Assad’s Alawite-led regime.

As an illustration of the pragmatic approach of both states towards Syria, when the uprising began, Qatar and Saudi reversed their traditional positions. Qatar, for example, was quick to abandon its friendship with Assad. The Qatari-owned al-Jazeera news channel reported the Deraa protests from an anti-Assad angle from March 2011. As seen by the absence of coverage when protests broke out in neighbouring ally Bahrain, Qatar is able to influence al-Jazeera’s editorial policy when it is in its national interests, and utilised the channel to promote Doha as a supporter of the Arab Spring.[4] In contrast, Saudi Arabia was quiet – not least because it had been behind the repression in Bahrain, also in March, which Assad appeared to be mimicking. Yet, al-Jazeera aside, both Doha and Riyadh were initially cautious. Indeed nearly five months passed before either state made any significant move against Assad. On 8th August King Abdullah became the first Arab leader to openly condemn the Syrian regime, calling for it to stop its, “killing machine,” and withdrawing his Ambassador from Damascus – a move copied by Qatar and other Gulf states.[5] Despite this initial caution, both states soon became the most active in pressing for Assad’s fall, using a variety of tools discussed below. This transformation, from relative caution to active involvement can be explained by considering the evolution of each state’s goals.

Despite internal debate among Saudi policy makers, often reflecting domestic rivalries, Riyadh broadly looks at Syria with several fixed regional and domestic priorities. While many assume that regional rivalry with Iran is at the heart of all activity in Syria, the domestic agenda led Saudi’s initial caution. In the context of the Arab Spring, March 2011 was a nervous time in Riyadh, with serious fears that unrest could spreads to the Kingdom. Assad’s repression of peaceful demonstrators was therefore not altogether unwelcome as Riyadh itself was battling similar calls in Bahrain and its own eastern provinces. By August, however, the immediate threat had passed. Abdullah had shored up his own domestic position with $37bn of welfare measures, and lavished generous grants on other allied autocrats in Oman, Bahrain and Jordan to help stem the regional tide. Moreover, it soon became clear that the opposition to Assad was not easily containable, and his heavy handed tactics were producing casualties far higher than elsewhere, with 2000 killed by August. Arguably it was only at this point, once it became clear that Assad would not be able to swiftly deal with the crisis that Saudi began to reconsider its approach, seeing the geostrategic advantage over Iran that the conflict might present.

Qatar’s stance was less driven by domestic factors, beyond a general belief by Emir Hamid that boosting the emirate’s profile abroad is well received at home.[6] Kristian Coates Ulrichsen suggests that the changing regional environment caused by the Arab Spring prompted a deliberate shift in Qatari policy, adding military activism to pre-2011 efforts to boost its regional influence via the soft power of al-Jazeera and mediation diplomacy.[7] Publically opposing Assad fitted in with this shift. Bernard Haykel, among others, suggests that Hamid saw in the Arab Spring the chance to enhance its regional power by offering financial and, where necessary, military support to the Islamist groups that seemed to be coming to power.[8] Qatar’s long ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, notably in Egypt and Syria, led a confident Hamid to invest most heavily in this group. Unlike Saudi, Qatar had few domestic fears from the Arab Spring, having a wealthy, small and mostly satisfied population. The Emir’s caution in Syria in spring 2011 is thus partly explained by his distraction elsewhere, having launched Ulrichsen’s new military activism primarily in Libya. Qatar’s shift to the Syrian arena in August 2011, in which it utilised its turn holding the rotating presidency of the Arab League, occurred just as the Libya conflict was reaching its climax in Tripoli. However, reports suggest that Qatar, along with Turkey, was privately imploring Assad until August 2011 to reform and accept some kind of accommodation with the Muslim Brotherhood, suggesting that even Hamid wasn’t initially so confident that a similar activism was the best option in Syria.

The intensity of Qatar’s engagement with the Syria crisis has varied according to domestic and regional factors. Most notably, the transition of power from Hamad to his son, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in June 2013 and the increase in rivalry with Saudi Arabia after the toppling of Qatar’s ally the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood by a Riyadh-backed army coup in Cairo a few weeks later. Similarly, the tools deployed were gradually ratcheted up.[9] However, once engaged, Qatar’s goal stayed broadly the same: the removal of the Assad regime and its replacement by a friendly regime, dominated by its ally the Muslim Brotherhood.[10] Importantly, Qatar had few concerns about Iran. Unlike Riyadh, Doha is bidding for increased influence, not regional ideological hegemony. Iran represented a relative rather than an absolute threat and Doha continued to have decent political and economic ties to Tehran, investing in the Iranian economy and hosting regular diplomatic meetings.[11]

Saudi’s goals have been more complex. While also seeking Assad’s demise, this was initially, and remains, a means to weaken Iran’s regional ambitions. Beyond this, new goals have emerged as the conflict and regional context evolved. With the increased sectarian tone of fighting, Abdullah recognised the importance of being seen to protect Syria’s Sunnis. This had a domestic component, given hardliners at home accused him of not doing enough to defend Iraq’s Sunnis after the fall of Saddam.[12] Also on the domestic front, although it encourages a sectarian interpretation of the conflict, Riyadh fears its citizens will head off to fight in Syria, returning later to challenge the regime, as happened after the 1980s Afghanistan war. Consequently, the authorities banned certain activist clerics from preaching in 2012 and forbade young men to travel to Syria in 2014.[13] The best way to prevent domestic blowback is to ensure that the radical jihadist groups that have emerged in Syria, Jubhat al Nusra and, especially, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), do not win. Yet at the same time, Riyadh also fears the Muslim Brotherhood, seeing it as a popular regional rival. Having helped stop the Brotherhood in Egypt in 2013, the last thing Riyadh wants is its victory in Syria. Thus Saudi aims to tread a fine line: ensuring the defeat of Iran’s ally Assad in favour of a Sunni-dominated regime that is neither ISIS/JAN nor Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar’s ally, while containing the extent of jihadi and sectarian fervour that it doesn’t prompt domestic blowback. With such a specific set of goals, it is not surprising that the tools deployed by Saudi have varied and evolved over time.

Tools deployed

Once engaged in the crisis, Saudi, Qatar and other Gulf actors have deployed a variety of tools. While the independent charities and individuals that have supported Syria’s rebels are a particular case that will be discussed later, the state actors of Saudi and Qatar have pursued similar paths. However, the levels of cooperation have been limited, and the rivalry between the two has often meant that efforts have run in parallel rather than convergence, greatly affecting the general chaos in Syria and their inability to achieve the one goal that they both agree upon: Assad’s demise.

Qatar and Saudi have both ratcheted up their engagement in the Syria crisis, from diplomatic opposition to Assad all the way to militarily assisting the armed opposition. Their initial tool was diplomatic and economic pressure on Assad himself. Reflecting a time when the two rivals were at their most cooperative, Riyadh and Qatar echoed the West’s approach to Damascus throughout 2011. After withdrawing ambassadors in August, Qatar took an active role, as it had in Libya, to pressure Assad via the Arab League. In concert with Saudi, sanctions on Syria’s economy were announced in November, along with an ‘Arab League peace initiative’ that entailed Assad standing down. When the regime refused, Riyadh and Qatar successfully moved to suspend Syria from the League. However, this did little to deter Assad. The sanctions were poorly implemented by Syria’s allies and key trading partners, Lebanon and Iraq. Syria’s economy nosedived, but more due to the war and the West’s tougher sanctions on oil exports.

Both states were likely aware of their limited ability to place real pressure on Syria’s economy, given Lebanon and Iraq’s closer ties with Syria and Iran than the Gulf, so the sanctions were primarily symbolic. Diplomacy with the regime would return fleetingly as an option for both states throughout the conflict, with both eventually endorsing the ultimately failed Geneva II peace process, attending the first talks between the regime and the opposition in early 2014. However, with the failure of the 2011-2 Arab Peace plan, both Riyadh and Doha looked primarily for political and military pressure as the route to settlement, needing western persuasion in 2014 to give the diplomatic tack another go.[14] Barely two months after sanctions were announced, in January 2012, the Syrian National Council (SNC), the opposition in exile that had formed in Turkey in summer 2011, was officially given financial support from Saudi and Qatar. Given the prominent position in the SNC of Qatar’s ally, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other exiles close to Saudi, it is likely that unofficial support had come before this.

The crisis descended into an armed civil war in August 2011 with the formation of the Free Syria Army (FSA) who rejected the opposition’s previously peaceful approach and the subsequent formation of militias, initially under the FSA’s loose banner. While there is little evidence that either Doha or Riyadh actively encouraged this shift towards armed confrontation, both governments were quick to lend support. This was the first time in the Syria crisis that the Gulf states departed considerably from western policy, which was wary of arming the rebels at this point. Qatar, flush from its success in Libya, where it had co-sponsored a UN resolution with Britain and France to mandate external military intervention, believed the same could be achieved in Syria. Western powers were more like to intervene if a reliable armed partner existed on the ground, like the rebel foothold in Benghazi in Libya. Saudi, also hoped for western intervention, declaring so in January 2012, but was growing increasingly sceptical of the US’s commitment to its interests in the region.[15] By early June, western journalists were witnessing Saudi and Qatari representatives handing over arms on the Turkish-Syrian border.[16]

However, both states lacked the extensive intelligence networks in Syria to distribute money effectively and instead relied on the personal ties of leading figures.[17] Saudi utilised tribal ties to Syrians, particularly in the southern Houran district, and the personal contacts of Intelligence Chief Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, while Qatar’s pre-existing links with the Muslim Brotherhood were deployed to dispatch cash and weapons to various militia. Allegedly this action helped shape the character of the armed rebels, with several groups adopting Islamist ideologies to increase their chances of receiving Gulf arms.[18] Money proved the primary tool deployed by each state and, by summer 2013 for example, Qatar had spent $3bn on the Syrian opposition. Unlike Iran, which invested time and its own Revolutionary Guards to help build up proxy militia in Lebanon and Iraq over several years, ensuring they had some local legitimacy, both Saudi and Qatar sought the quick route of throwing money at loosely formed groups. Much to the chagrin of its enemies, Iran has developed a certain expertise in building up such proxy fighters, while Qatar and Saudi are relative newcomers to this underhand game, and their inexperience showed.

Importantly, Doha and Riyadh did not unite their efforts, choosing instead to arm rival militia and competing factions within the SNC and, after November 2012, its successor the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SOC). This exacerbated the pre-existing tensions within the political leadership. Moaz al-Khatib, first president of the SOC and a respected reconciliation figure, resigned after barely five months citing interference from external actors. The week before, Qatar had pushed its Muslim Brotherhood affiliated candidate, Ghassan Hitto, as interim SOC Prime Minister causing 9 members of the SOC executive to resign. Since Khatib’s resignation, Qatar and Saudi have vied to have their clients in prominent positions. Ahmed Jarba, SOC President from July 2013-July 2014, was seen to be Riyadh’s man, being a leader of the Shammar tribe from eastern Syria, which has branches in Saudi Arabia that were likely the conduit for the relationship.

Divisions have been even more pronounced over the support for different armed groups. Until 2013, Saudi formally supported only the FSA, helping with fighters’ salaries. Salim Idriss, the chief of staff appointed when the FSA was reorganised with international support in December 2012, was an ally of Riyadh, as was his successor in February 2014, Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir. However, after US president Barack Obama opted not to militarily punish Assad after deploying chemical weapons in September 2013, Prince Bandar leant considerable support to the Jaysh al-Islam (JAI), a group of Salafist Islamists outside the FSA umbrella.[19] This shift was prompted by the perceived weakness of the FSA, after the continued success of radical jihadists, Jubhat al-Nusra and ISIS. Indeed, soon after the creation of JAI, in November 2013 they formed the Islamic Front with other large Islamist militia, specifically disassociating themselves from the SNC and FSA, but also opposing ISIS. To this end, they launched an internal rebel war against ISIS in January 2014.[20] Yet Saudi has continued to support the FSA, lobbying the US to send it more sophisticated weaponry after it reluctantly agreed to end its arms embargo in May 2013, and to deploy more resources towards Syria’s southern frontSaudi’s preferred theatre.

As a sign of the complexities of the loyalties of Syria’s various militias now battling both Assad and each other, the Islamic Front’s largest group was actually one of Qatar’s closest allies: Ahrar as-Sham. Qatar was far quicker to undermine the united structure of the FSA, which it also formally supported, by backing alternative militia. In conjunction with Turkey, Qatar initially backed groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood such as Liwa al-Tawhid, part of the FSA umbrella.[21] However, as the opposition radicalised and more extreme Salafists and Jihadists proved stronger against Assad’s forces, and started to peel off former FSA fighters, Qatar switched to the groups it thought were most likely to succeed, backing Ahrar and, allegedly, jihadists like Jubhat al-Nusra.[22] Importantly, Qatar’s switch in favour of more radical groups outside of the FSA seemed to increase as the internal struggle for the leadership between Saudi and Muslim Brotherhood clients turned Saudi’s way.

A third Gulf actor has also played a considerable role in backing the armed rebels: private donations from individuals and their associated charities. Through a sophisticated process of public fundraising drives followed by a complex distribution network of traditional hawala money lenders and bags of cash crossing by boat into Turkey then Syria, hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised and dispatched by organisations such as the Popular Commission to Support the Syrian People (PCSSP).[23] Not being restrained by state policy, these funds were often deliberately sent to the more radical militias, such as Ahrar, which in 2012 publically thanked the PCSSP, supported by the wealthy Kuwaiti Ajmi family, for sending $400,000.[24] Many have alleged that it is through these groups that Jihadists such as ISIS received support. Importantly, many of these Sunni groups, and some of the clerics who have raised funds for them, tend to be overtly sectarian, contributing to the conflict’s descent towards ethnic strife. Having lacked a coherent anti-terror financing law until summer 2013, and even after then it being hard to enforce, Kuwait has been the clearing house for most of these donations, although donors have come from all over the GCC.[25] The extent to which regimes are complicit in this is open to debate. On the one hand, Saudi, Qatar and others note how integrated their economies are with Kuwait, and how many families overlap, making it very difficult to track and prevent the transfer of funds. However, given Saudi and Qatar have implemented their own strict anti-terror financing laws, they would likely be able to clamp down on all donors were the money going to Assad rather than the opposition. The fact the funds continued to flow for so long suggests a degree of complicity from all Gulf governments.

A final tool deployed by both Saudi and Qatar in the Syria crisis has been ‘soft’ or ideational power.[26] Members of the ruling families of Qatar and Saudi own the vast majority of pan-Arab satellite television channels, along with key newspapers and social media hubs. They have thus had a disproportionate role in controlling and promoting a certain message on the Syria crisis to their target audience, the Arab world’s Sunnis. Alarmingly, both have adopted a sectarian tone. Observers have noted that Al-Jazeera’s editorial has been far more in line with Qatari foreign policy since 2011. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Al-Jazeera’s resident Muslim Brotherhood firebrand, has similarly become more sectarian. Having previously advocated Shia-Sunni reconciliation, in 2013 he ranted against Hezbollah and Iran: “”The leader of the party of the Satan [Hezbollah] comes to fight the Sunnis… Now we know what the Iranians want… They want continued massacres to kill Sunnis.”[27] Saudi media has been less overt, but has adopted a consistent anti-Assad and anti-Iranian line. At home, Saudi clerics have been vocally anti-Alawite, anti-Shia and sectarian in their preaching about Syria.[28] While the Saudi authorities have sought to stem any calls for Jihad, there appears no opposition to the promotion of a sectarian interpretation of the conflict. This helps amplify the Shia threat of Saudi’s regional rival Iran to ordinary Sunnis, and seems to enhance Saudi’s self-proclaimed position of guardian of the Sunnis. Of course, with the amplifying effect of the Gulf-owned media, this sectarian message has reached far beyond Saudi and Qatar’s borders, encouraging Jihadists from other states to head to Syria to fight, and for wealthier Gulf individuals to fund militia.[29]


It would be easy to see Gulf actor’s engagement in the Syria crisis as a failure. The political and economic pressure Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others placed on Assad did not cow him, while the financial and military support offered to the political and armed opposition groups has not produced a decisive victory nor persuaded the West to militarily intervene. Assad remains in Damascus, the conflict goes on, over 250,000 Syrians are dead and over 8 million displaced or refugees.

Saudi Arabia’s regional goals appear to be failing. Iran remains in Syria and ISIS and JAN are growing in strength, while the Muslim Brotherhood retains influence in the SNC, despite the leadership’s capture by pro-Saudi allies. Indeed, in Spring 2014 Prince Bandar was removed from the Syria file and replaced by Interior Minister Mohammad Bin Nayef, suggesting an admission that the past 3 years had failed. However, that is only part of the story. Iran’s reputation has been greatly damaged by the Syria conflict, with Saudi successfully mobilising the Sunni Arab street against Tehran, in a way it failed to do throughout the 2000s. Whatever ideational threat Iran posed in the past, has been killed in Syria. While ISIS and other Jihadists and the Muslim Brotherhood remain a danger, the presence of other, often Saudi-backed, groups means none has yet succeeded in dominating the opposition and, should Assad ever fall, neither is likely to command absolute power. Moreover, domestically Saudi’s goals have largely been achieved. The wave of popular revolt sparked by the Arab Spring has been drowned in Syria’s bloodbath, seemingly putting off any would-be Saudi revolutionaries. However, the sectarianism deliberately pushed may come back to haunt Riyadh. Not only might Jihadists who have slipped past Saudi’s embargos return to challenge the regime, but by raising expectations so high that Riyadh is defending the region’s Sunnis, they may be inviting future domestic, and regional, trouble were Assad to eventually triumph.

Qatar can also take some solace from its record in Syria. Its goal of boosting its regional profile has certainly been achieved, although its desire to form a friendly Muslim-Brotherhood dominated government in Syria has not. However, it’s alleged links to Syria’s Jihadists have damaged its hard-earned reputation on the Arab street. Al-Jazeera is no longer regarded as the people’s friend in the way it once was. More importantly, the regional context from which Qatar benefitted from in 2011 has since shifted against it with its Muslim Brotherhood allies losing power in Egypt. This, in turn, has placed Qatar on collision course with Saudi and its GCC allies who withdrew their ambassadors from Doha in March 2014, due to Qatar’s continued support for both the Brotherhood and Syria’s Jihadists. With the resources at its disposal and a very small and satisfied domestic population to worry about, few expect Tamim and his still influential father, Hamid, to change tack.[30] However, this does illustrate how Gulf intervention in the Syria crisis has had serious reverberations on regional relations, and Qatar’s intervention in Syria may have cost it.


This paper set out to answer three questions concerning Gulf actors’ role in the Syria crisis. It questioned the extent to which sectarianism has driven engagement and has suggested that interests have proven far more of a driver than sectarian identity. Individuals and charities from the Gulf have been motivated to back sectarian militias and jihadists due to ideological reasons, quite possibly mobilised by the language encouraged by Qatar and Saudi Arabia on pan-Arab media and sermons. However, these identities have been instrumentalised by both regimes to pursue their regional and domestic interests. Saudi Arabia in particular, while posing as the defender of Sunnism, has been primarily concerned with containing domestic threats and gaining domestic and regional support for its rivalry with Iran, finding sectarianism a useful tool. Its willingness for détente with Assad prior to 2011 illustrates a cold realism based on anti-Iranian state interests rather than anti-Shia ideology. Moreover, the willingness of both Qatar and Saudi Arabia to back Syrian militia of various ideological hues, again suggests pragmatism. Though Qatar has shown itself to be the most fleeting with its support, quickly backing groups beyond its traditional Muslim Brotherhood allies once they seemed to be more successful whether Jihadist, Salafist or moderate, even Saudi Arabia was willing to diversify its support away from the official FSA once it believed the radicals were in the ascendency.

The second question asked whether the Gulf States had the capacity and capability to affect the course of conflict to fulfil their goals, and this paper has suggested that this capacity is limited. Both states have shown impatience in trying to affect change in Syria. The speed with which they have ratcheted up moves against Assad in 2011-12 suggests a reactive approach rather than any grand strategy. In fairness, many actors, including the West, were guilty of this, particularly the assumption that Assad would easily fall. Yet Saudi and Qatar compounded this by hastily backing armed groups, without an established intelligence and distribution network. Instead, private and tribal contacts have been the root of relationships with the Syrian opposition, rather than those that necessarily have a base of support on the ground. Moreover, as discussed above, both were willing to switch allegiance to other groups relatively swiftly, given that it was mostly only money being invested, not time, troops or equipment – a sharp contrast to Iran’s patient experience building militias in Lebanon and Iraq. Importantly, Saudi and Qatar from the beginning backed different factions and, eventually, different armed groups, prioritising their own interests over the defeat of Assad. These factors have played a major role in the fragmentation of the opposition and its inability to unite and forge a viable military and political coalition against Assad, and certainly not one that would attract confident external intervention.

The final question asked what the impact of Gulf policy has been on the Syria crisis. It is clear from this paper that the impact has not been positive. Support has been given, whether directly or indirectly, to jihadist groups, boosting Jubhat al-Nusra and ISIS; sectarian language has been encouraged, exacerbating the confessionalisation of the civil war; factionalism in the political opposition has been encouraged as Saudi and Qatar have worked at cross purposes, while their support of various militia has ensured the lack of unity in the forces fighting Assad. However, a few caveats should be added. Firstly, these trends all existed in Syria prior to the conflict, and Gulf intervention has exacerbated rather than created them. Secondly, Syria has not existed in a bubble since 2011, and regional developments, most notably in Libya in 2011 and Egypt in 2013, have affected the changing calculations of Qatar and Saudi in particular with regards to Syria. Finally, the Gulf actors are by no means unique in their negative impact on the conflict. Indeed, it would be fair to say that all the actors involved, whether Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the other Gulf states, Iran, Russia, Turkey or the West, have all contributed considerably to the miserable position of Syria today.

[1] F. Wehrey, Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014, pp.137-156)

[2] V. Nasr, The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat (New York: Random House, 2013) p. 200; S. Rosiny, ‘Power sharing in Syria: Lessons from Lebanon’s Taif Experience’, Middle East Policy 20.3 (2013) pp.41-55.

[3] J. Muir, ‘High hopes for Saudi-Syrian summit’, BBC News, 8/10/09, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8296052.stm (Accessed 12/3/14); J. Al-Saadi, ‘Saudi-Syrian Relations: A Historic Divide’, al-akhbar 4/2/12, http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/3906 (accessed 12/3/14)

[4] M. Kamrava, “Mediation and Qatari foreign policy.” The Middle East Journal 65.4 (2011) pp. 539-556.

[5] A. Blomfield, ‘Syria unrest: Saudi Arabia calls on ‘killing machine’ to stop’, The Telegraph, 8/8/11,

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/8687912/Syria-unrest-Saudi-Arabia-calls-on-killing-machine-to-stop.html (accessed 12/3/14)

[6] B. Haykel, ‘Qatar and Islamism’, NOREF Policy Brief, February 2013, http://www.peacebuilding.no/var/ezflow_site/storage/original/application/ac81941df1be874ccbda35e747218abf.pdf (accessed 15/3/14)

[7] K. Coates Ulrichsen, ‘From Mediation to Interventionism: Understanding Qatar’s Arab Spring Policies’ Russia in Global Affairs, 23/10/13, http://eng.globalaffairs.ru/number/From-Mediation-to-Interventionism-16170 (accessed 12/3/14)

[8] Haykel, ‘Qatar and Islamism’.

[9] K. Coates Ulrichsen, ‘From Mediation to Interventionism’.

[10] B. Katulis, ‘Qatar, Saudi Arabia Diverge in Battle to Shape Changing Middle East’ World Politics Review, 31/5/13, http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/12988/qatar-saudi-arabia-diverge-in-battle-to-shape-changing-middle-east (accessed 12/3/14).

[11] V. Nasr, The Dispensable Nation p. 207; E. Dickinson, ‘How Qatar Lost the Middle East’, Foreign Policy 5/3/14, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/03/05/how_qatar_lost_the_middle_east (accessed 17/3/14)

[12] F. Wehrey, ‘Saudi Arabia reins in its clerics on Syria,’ Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 14/6/12, http://carnegieendowment.org/2012/06/14/saudi-arabia-reins-in-its-clerics-on-syria/bu10 (accessed 17/3/14)

[13] S. Kerr, ‘Saudi cracks down on youths travelling to Syria’, Financial Times, 4/2/14, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/c98efe4e-8d88-11e3-bbe7-00144feab7de.html#axzz2wJCikVoa (accessed 12/3/14); Wehrey, ‘Saudi Arabia reins in its clerics on Syria’.

[14] Discussions with British officials 24/3/14

[15] R. Spencer and R. Sherlock, ‘Saudi Arabia calls for outside intervention in Syra (sic)’ The Telegraph, 22/1/12, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/9031316/Saudi-Arabia-calls-for-outside-intervention-in-Syra.html (accessed 10/3/12)

[16] Rania Abuzaid, ‘Opening the Weapons Tap: Syria’s Rebels Await Fresh and Free Ammo’, Time, 22/6/12 – http://world.time.com/2012/06/22/opening-the-weapons-tap-syrias-rebels-await-fresh-and-free-ammo/#ixzz2j7zkZnQl (accessed 1/10/13)

[17] J. Shapiro, ‘The Qatar Problem’, Foreign Policy, 28/9/13, http://mideastafrica.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/08/28/the_qatar_problem (accessed 20/3/14)

[18] ‘Syria’s Salafists: Getting stronger?’ The Economist, 20/10/12

[19] I. Black, ‘Syria crisis: Saudi Arabia to spend millions to train new rebel force’, The Guardian, 7/11/13, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/07/syria-crisis-saudi-arabia-spend-millions-new-rebel-force (accessed 21/3/14)

[20] H. Hassan, ‘Front to Back’, Foreign Policy 4/3/14, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/03/04/islamic_front_isis_syria (accessed 17/3/14)

[21] N. MacFarquhar and H. Saad, ‘Rebel Groups in Syria Make Framework for Military’, New York Times 7/12/12, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/08/world/middleeast/rebel-groups-in-syria-make-framework-for-military.html?_r=0 (accessed 10/3/14)

[22] A. Bakr, ‘Defying allies, Qatar unlikely to abandon favoured Syria rebels’ Reuters 20/3/14, http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/03/20/syria-crisis-qatar-idUKL6N0LP0Y120140320 (accessed 22/3/14)

[23] W. McCants, ‘Gulf Charities and Syrian sectarianism,’ Foreign Policy 30/9/13 – http://mideastafrica.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/09/30/the_gulf_s_sectarian_syria_strategy (accessed 17/3/14); E. Dickinson, ‘Follow the Money: How Syrian Salafis are funded from the Gulf’, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 23/12/13, http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=54011 (accessed 17/3/14)

[24] McCants, ‘Gulf Charities and Syrian sectarianism.’

[25] E. Dickinson, ‘The Syrian War’s private donors lose faith’, The New Yorker, 16/1/14.

[26] J. Nye, Soft power: The means to success in world politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2004).

[27] ‘Syria conflict: Cleric Qaradawi urges Sunnis to join rebels’, BBC News, 13/1/13, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-22741588 (accessed 12/3/14)

[28] Wehrey, ‘Saudi Arabia reins in its clerics on Syria’.

[29] E. Dickinson, ‘Follow the Money’

[30] B. Y. Saab, ‘Break Up in the Gulf’, Foreign Affairs, 6/3/14, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/141006/bilal-y-saab/break-up-in-the-gulf (accessed 17/3/14)

Sectarianism and conflict in Syria

New academic article for Third World Quarterly, Volume 36, Issue 2, 2015

By Christopher Phillips


This article challenges the sectarian narrative of Syria’s current civil war, which relies on several false assumptions about the nature of political identity. It first questions how sectarian the uprising and civil war actually are, suggesting that the conflict is ‘semi-sectarian’, given the multiple other fault lines of contention, notably class, ideology and other non-sect, sub-state ties. It then draws on the theoretical debates between primordialists, ethno-symbolists and modernists to historicise political identity development in Syria. In doing so, it reasserts the modernist case, emphasising how political identities in Syria, both national and sectarian, have developed in a complex interrelated manner in the modern era and how the recent violent mobilisation of sectarian identity is the result of long- and short-term structural, economic, socio-cultural and political factors rather than unchanging ancient animosities. Of these, the most vital remain structural changes and elite reactions to them, with the prospect of state collapse in Syria’s future the most likely cause of a descent into further sectarian chaos.

For full article, see here.

Syria, 4 Years On: What is Left of Assad’s State is Eroding from Within

By Christopher Phillips, Chatham House, 9 March 2015

Both literally and figuratively, the regime is mortgaging the future in a desperate attempt to survive. 

After four years of unrest and war, the Syrian state is eroding. This is most obvious in the north and eastern regions where the Assad regime has been pushed out and local militia and committees, including Islamic State (IS), have struggled to fill the vacuum. But the densely populated rump still in regime hands, stretching from Lattakia in the coastal northwest, via the now-recaptured city of Homs and the capital Damascus, to Suwaida in the south has been severely weakened by the war and the government’s increasingly desperate lengths to win it. Even a victory, whatever that now means, will leave a hollowed-out entity facing existential economic, security and social problems.


The economy in regime-controlled Syria is on life support. Having lost control of 50 per cent of its territory, a third of its population, its oil fields and the trade routes to Iraq and Turkey, the regime has virtually no income and is instead dependent on billions of dollars worth of loans and aid from Russia and Iran. Even if the regime survives, the costs of any rebuild in the war-ravaged resource-poor country would be further crippled were Moscow or Tehran, currently suffering low oil prices, ever to call in its debts. Syrian economist Jihad Yazigi has noted that this financial support is mostly spent on the war effort rather than infrastructure or increasing salaries with inflation. The regime is even cutting subsidies and raising taxes in an effort to keep the war going.


Syria’s security structure has also been undermined by Assad’s war strategy. While Iran helped the regime restructure its depleted military and security forces, this brought with it considerable Iranian oversight. The true extent of influence by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani remains unknown, but many charge that he, assisted by Hezbollah, now leads the regime’s war effort. To combat its significant manpower shortages the regime, with strong Iranian encouragement, has allowed foreign Shia militia and newly-formed or refashioned domestic militia to supplement its forces. Such groups have considerable autonomy in some areas, setting up their own check points and collecting protection money. Some domestic Shia and Alawi militia are reportedly receiving independent ideological training by Hezbollah. Such ‘militia-ization’ will be difficult to reverse and undermines the regime’s monopoly on violence, a key feature of a viable state.


The short-term risk for Assad is that the measures taken to stay in power will cause what is left of his state to implode. Already there have been grumblings among Assad’s largely loyal Alawi community. Small protest groups (mostly online) have denounced the high number of Alawi military deaths or the continued opulence of Assad’s cronies despite their hardship. However, with the regime successfully painting the civil war as an existential threat to Syria’s minorities, and the rise of IS seemingly justifying that characterization, as long as Assad’s supporters feel under threat, such grumbling seems unlikely to spill over into outright rebellion.

The bigger question is where this will leave the Syrian state if and when the war eventually ends. Even if the regime wins or, at least, is able to pacify enough of Rump Syria to claim ‘victory’, Assad’s state will likely be weak, under-resourced, heavily in debt, lacking a monopoly on violence and with an increasingly resentful population that has sacrificed a lot in blood and treasure for Assad’s small ruling clique.

This expert comment is part of the Chatham House spotlight Four Years On: The Costs of War in Syria.

– See more at: http://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/17113#sthash.k7s40mOz.dpuf

Syria: The view from Moscow

Published by Middle East Eye, 9th December 2014

A weaker economy and the domestic threat of ISIS may limit some tools available to Russia, but are unlikely to alter Moscow’s overall view and strategy in Syria

Of all the states involved in the Syria crisis, Russia has arguably been the most insulated from its fallout. Western states and their regional allies have been frustrated as their policies to topple President Bashar al-Assad repeatedly fail, while threatening jihadists such as ISIS have thrived in the chaos. Refugees have flooded Syria’s neighbours. Even Assad’s other ally, Iran, has seen its hard-earned regional reputation shattered. In contrast, the costs to Moscow have been limited.

However, the conflict’s echoes are finally being felt. In early December, Islamist gunmen fought Russian forces in Grozny, killing 20, prompting fears of ISIS-inspired violence in the northern Caucasus. The oil price has plummeted to $65, partly the result of Saudi Arabian machinations to punish both Iran and Russia. This is 35 percent below the Kremlin’s budgeted price and, along with western sanctions over Ukraine and the tumbling value of the Ruble, looks set to cripple Russia’s economy. However, contrary to some claims, this seems unlikely to prompt any major reconsideration of President Vladimir Putin’s Syria policy.

It is important to understand the view of Syria from Moscow. At the beginning of the crisis, Western analysts mistakenly believed Putin’s support was about preserving Russia’s interests in Syria: a tiny naval installation in Tartous and a modest arms market. Yet such material interests are, in reality, marginal. Instead, Putin sees Syria primarily through a geo-strategic lens. While Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have all taken leading roles in the campaign against Assad, Russia sees the West and particularly the US as chief instigator.

Russia felt betrayed for endorsing (by abstention) a humanitarian UN resolution on Libya in 2011 that was then used by NATO to topple Gaddafi, and believes the US has the same goal in Syria. The “humiliation” over Libya is strongly felt, and Putin is determined to draw a line to prevent any more western-led regime changes. The principle of defending state sovereignty is widely touted among Russian analysts, not least for self-preservation: many fear that Moscow might be the eventual target if regime change gains momentum. Recent sanctions over Ukraine only reinforce this siege mentality.

While geo-strategic factors have led Russian Syria policy, regional and domestic factors have also been a concern. Putin’s risked the ire of Assad’s Gulf and Turkish enemies, with repeated UN vetoes in support of Syria and a constant supply of arms, even causing his ambassador to Qatar to be assaulted in Doha in 2012. Yet he has not been insensitive to regional concerns. Vitaly Naumkin, director of the Institute of Oriental Studies at Moscow State University, notes how Israeli objections deterred Moscow from supplying Syria with S-300 missiles, while bridges have been rebuilt with the Gulf since the 2012 low. Indeed, as one British diplomat recently noted to me, Moscow has earned a grudging respect in the Gulf for consistency, contrasted with the perceived unreliability of the West. Moreover, Russia has been careful to maintain its thriving trade with Turkey despite differences over Syria.

Domestically, Putin’s determination to support Syria increased when protests unexpectedly erupted in Moscow in December 2011, prompting fears that Assad’s fall might embolden opposition at home. These have diminished as Putin’s popularity has increased, particularly after the annexation of Crimea, but other domestic issues remain salient. These include the concerns of the influential Orthodox Church over the fate of Syria’s Christians, persecuted by some of Assad’s opponents. Another is jihadism: 14 percent of Russia’s population is Muslim and Moscow has long been worried about the potential for radicals within the Syrian opposition to inspire domestic Islamist violence, particularly in the troubled spots of the north Caucasus. The rise of ISIS confirms what Moscow has long said to the West: backing Assad’s opponents will lead to state collapse and jihadism.

However, the ISIS campaign seems more likely to move the West towards Russia’s position on Syria than vice versa. Moscow has long favoured a negotiated solution with Syria’s “sovereign government” playing the leading role. Indeed, Putin’s envoy Mikhail Bogdanov recently proposed a Moscow conference between the Syrian regime and the opposition as a first step towards a return to the Geneva II negotiation process, abandoned in February. Though Putin has little personal liking for the Syrian President, quipping once that he spent more time in Paris than in Moscow, the West’s “Assad must go” precondition for talks is a non-starter, as it effectively endorses regime change. The calls by some in the West to accommodate Assad’s role and cooperate with him against ISIS only seems to vindicate Moscow’s approach.

Until this expected point of Western concession is reached, while Russia’s economic troubles may place greater limits on financial support for Syria, they are unlikely to alter overall strategy. A recent refusal to grant Damascus a $1bn in requested credit may hurt Assad, especially as his other patron, Iran, is also struggling economically. However, Putin’s determination to avoid a western “victory” in Syria thus far suggests that, were the regime close to economic collapse, the necessary funds would be found. As suggested by his recent State of the Nation address, he is willing to put the Russian economy through plenty of strain before contemplating changing course.

For nearly four years, Russia’s Syria policy has not been too costly for Moscow. It has successfully prevented what it saw as Western-led regime change in Damascus, while weathering any damage to its regional reputation. In 2015, a weaker economy and the domestic threat of ISIS may limit some of the tools available, but are unlikely to alter Moscow’s overall view and strategy in Syria. In that sense, the latest developments simply mean that Russia is finally joining the other states involved in the Syria crisis: pursuing a costly policy, yet still unwilling to compromise.

Syria’s Civil War: The Regional Dimension

On 17th October 2014 I took part in Rethink Rebuild‘s conference on the Syria crisis in Manchester. As the first speaker on this second panel, I argue that understanding regional context is key to understanding Syria’s civil war. While Bashar al-Assad’s violent response to peaceful protest may have begun the war, it has been exacerbated and shaped by regional factors. Many of these have their roots in the long term impact of the 2003 Iraq War.

For the first panel, see here.