Tag Archives: Middle East

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

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The International Relations of the Middle East after the Arab Spring

A version of this article first appeared in The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Middle East Regional Overview, January 2012.

Regional relations after the Arab Spring: the multi polar Middle East

By Christopher Phillips

In the 1960s an American political scientist, Malcolm Kerr, coined the phrase ‘the Arab Cold War’ to describe the regional rivalry between two blocks of Arab states each backed by superpower patrons. Mr Kerr accepted that this rivalry ended in the 1970s but in the first decade of the 21st century several commentators claimed that, following increased US intervention after 9/11, once again the Middle East was being divided into two blocks and a new Middle Eastern Cold War was taking shape. This bipolarity saw one camp led by the US and its principle allies – Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt – face down a second, self-styled ‘resistance’ camp composed of Iran, Syria, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Palestinian militia/party, Hamas. As in the 1950s and 60s, these two blocks found themselves competing in numerous minor conflicts, political battles and the media, in a bid to dominate the region, with Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine forming the key battlegrounds.

The Arab Spring has changed this. While Israel and Saudi Arabia persist with their old narrative about the threat from Iran, in reality the popular uprisings of 2011 has changed the environment around all three states. New actors that had previously stood back from the region, such as Turkey and Qatar, stand to increase their influence and clout as a consequence of the unrest while formerly influential states such as Egypt and Syria look set for prolonged instability and weakness. Alongside this the global context has changed. The emerging BRICS powers have enhanced their influence and importance, at the very moment that the US and EU appear weaker following internal economic turmoil. The result is that instead of two clear blocks competing, the Middle East after the Arab Spring looks set to be multi-polar, with many different regional and global powers vying for influence in the different political and, possibly, military conflicts that the uprisings have created.

Regional winners: Turkey and Qatar

Turkey is one of the big winners from the Arab Spring. Even before 2011, Turkey’s ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy had expanded its political, economic and cultural influence in the region considerably. The Arab Spring has boosted this further. Firstly, Turkey has mostly found itself on the right side of events. The Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was the first foreign leader to call for Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to quit and he eventually turned on Muammar Qadhafi in Libya and Bashar al-Assad in Syria in favour of pro-democracy protestors. Secondly, most of the moderate Islamist parties that are now likely to dominate the Arab world, such as Tunisia’s Ennadha and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, claim that the combination of Islam, democracy and economic success modelled by Turkey’s ruling party, the AKP, is their goal. Although some of its business links with these states may be lessened in the short term as they undergo transition and some economic difficulty, in the longer term Turkey can expect to translate its early support for and ideological affinity with the new regimes into strong relations and enhanced influence.

The other big winner is Qatar, which had also expanded its regional influence prior to 2011. With its security guaranteed by hosting the US military and its oil and gas-based economy booming, Qatar has used its wealth and media influence, primarily via its satellite channel, Al-Jazeera, to punch above its weight. The government reacted quicker than most to the Arab Spring. Al-Jazeera, which is theoretically independent but rarely contradicts its parent state’s wishes, led reporting on the unrest in Tunisia and Egypt and helped it spread across the region. Similarly, Qatar led Arab League efforts against Mr Qaddafi and Mr Assad. Some accuse Qatar of hypocrisy for being vocal on Libya and Syria yet quiet on similar unrest in its ally, Bahrain. Others claim Qatar is using the Arab Spring to spread an Islamist agenda, particularly in Libya and Tunisia where it is rumoured to have financed Islamist political parties. Both accusations may be true but Qatar is primarily opportunistic. The region is changing and Qatar has been among the quickest to realise that it is well placed to fashion a future that will enhance its interests.

Regional losers: Egypt, Syria, Israel

The states that have experienced wide-reaching change are likely to be weaker in the short term as they focus internally. Tunisia, Yemen and Libya, have never been particularly influential in the region, however. Egypt’s weakness on the other hand, as the most populous Arab state and formerly a lead player in the US’ bloc of allies, will be felt. Despite the post-Mubarak military government negotiating the release of Gilad Shalit in October, its involvement in Arab-wide concerns has lessened. Even if elections go smoothly and a democratic order takes shape, it is likely to be several years before Egypt returns to its previous role of a leading power in the Arab world. Syria’s ongoing unrest and the realistic possibility that Mr Assad will also soon be toppled have removed another traditionally powerful voice from regional politics. As the main Arab partner of the Iran-led resistance bloc to American hegemony in the region, the Assad regime has long held influence beyond its borders, notably in neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq. After the Arab Spring however, as the regime slowly crumbles, Syria is likely to become an arena for competing regional powers itself.

Israel may not have faced domestic instability due to the Arab Spring but it ends 2011 considerably weaker. It still has the region’s best military and a thriving economy, but it is increasingly isolated. Even before 2011, the government of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu had fallen out with Turkey and was relying increasingly on US diplomatic cover rather than building regional support. The Arab Spring has exacerbated this isolation. The new government in once-reliable Egypt looks likely to be a more hostile Islamist-led regime. Although Syria is an enemy, it was at least predictable and stable, and a civil war may threaten Israel’s north-eastern border. Even the friendly Hashemite regime in Jordan may have to make concessions to its revived Muslim Brotherhood, which wants to abrogate the Jordan-Israeli peace. On top of this, the threat of popular unrest has finally brought together the rival Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, in a unity agreement, to Mr Netanyahu’s chagrin. Furthermore, the success of the Muslim Brotherhood as a result of the democratic opening in Egypt is likely to boost Hamas in time for Palestinian elections in 2012. Isolated Israel may soon be entirely surrounded by unfriendly Islamist governments, forcing it to either compromise or become ever more insular.

Rivalry re-shaped: Saudi Arabia and Iran

Long-time rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran find themselves simultaneously enhanced and impinged by the Arab Spring. When unrest began, some feared Iran would be the main beneficiary. Ayatollah Khamenei claimed that the Arab Spring was modelled on the 1979 Iranian revolution, while Iran’s enemies claimed it was all part of an Iranian plot. Iran did little to dispel this when shortly after regime change in Egypt it sent military ships through the Suez Canal for the first time in 30 years. Yet whatever gains Iran may have made in Egypt and elsewhere were undermined with the outbreak of violence in Syria, Iran’s main ally. The fall of the Assad regime, or even its survival but in a weaker state, will be a major blow to Iran’s regional influence. Its supply line to Hezbollah in Lebanon will be cut while its other ally, Hamas, has shown sides of abandoning the pro-Iran axis for the emerging Sunni Islamist-led governments. Iran will not necessarily be weaker, having already reconfigured its regional approach by strengthening its influence over Iraq as an alternative Arab ally to Syria. However, the days of a fixed pro-Iran block of Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas seem over. Iran looks likely to continue its cold and proxy wars with its regional rivals in Israel and Saudi Arabia, but the Arab Spring has created a new, fluid regional scene for it to work in.

Saudi Arabia’s position is equally mixed. In a reversal of Iran’s experience, when Mr Mubarak fell and there was serious unrest in neighbouring Bahrain, the Saudis looked unnerved. To prevent what it perceived as Iranian influence from spreading, it took action to consolidate power in the ‘near abroad’. Troops were sent to Bahrain, US$20bn was promised to boost Bahrain and Oman, an active role was played to broker a solution in Yemen, which was also facing unrest, and Gulf Cooperation Council membership was offered to Jordan (and Morocco). However, as events have shifted Saudi Arabia looks more secure and finds itself in an unfamiliar, more assertive role. Although the ageing rulers seem keener to focus on internal succession issues than the region, there remains an obsession with the Iran threat. The weakness of the Assad regime has offered a chance to flip Syria away from Iran, and Saudi has joined Qatar in pressing the Arab League to hasten its fall. The willingness of its long-standing ally, the US, to abandon Hosni Mubarak in February, looks to have worried the leadership, and its willingness to fill the regional vacuum left by Egypt may come from a fear that if it does not act, its interests will suffer. This is unlikely to translate into any serious intervention outside of the near abroad, despite its historical links to Egypt’s Salafists, except for arenas such as Syria and Iraq where the Iran threat is high. Saudi Arabia is therefore likely to play a somewhat more assertive role than in the past, though mostly to defend itself from Iran in the wake of the collapse of the previously strong US-Israel-Egypt-Saudi axis.

The global powers: The West steps back, the BRICS step up?

Facilitating the shift towards a multi-polar Middle East has been the shift in global context, both before and after the Arab Spring. A combination of military overstretch after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, an economic slump and a revived isolationism in domestic politics meant that the US was already weakening in the Middle East. The Arab Spring has exacerbated this, costing the US one key ally, Hosni Mubarak, and unnerving another, Saudi Arabia. Despite this, Mr Obama was able to score a few populist victories in the early days of unrest, eventually calling on Mr Mubarak to step down and approving military action in Libya. However, any enhanced goodwill that this might have bought the US was undermined by its approach to Israel, notably Mr Obama’s staunch opposition to the Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN in September, which stripped away any pretence that the US can be a neutral arbiter in the region. Of course, the US is not retreating from the Middle East and with its military bases in the Gulf – though not Iraq – and key economic and diplomatic relations will continue to be an important power. However, the diplomatic hegemony the US enjoyed in the 1990s and the military hegemony it attempted in the 2000s looks unlikely to be a feature of the post-Arab spring world.

The diminishing power of the US leaves space for other powers to fill, although the neighbouring European Union (EU) is unlikely to be one. Despite being the Middle East’s largest trade partner, the EU has rarely made that clout count, and is even less likely to do so now as it faces economic crisis. Individual states, notably Britain and France, have attempted to play a leading role, particularly in the actions taken in Libya and Syria, but without the military support of NATO and the US, their role will be limited. The emerging BRICS on the other hand, do seem likely to enhance their position. Russia under Vladimir Putin has already revived some of the USSR’s former prominence in the region, expanding its economic, military and diplomatic presence in Syria in particular. The reluctance to approve UN resolutions on Libya and the steadfast refusal to do so on Syria suggests that Russia seeks to guard its expanding strategic regional position. The other BRICS, China, India, Brazil and South Africa seem to have restricted their regional involvement to the economic sphere for now. Unlike the western states, these powers seem willing to offer trade and cooperation without the human rights and democratic strings attached. As western influence continues to wane and the economic clout of these states grows further, an enhanced role for the BRICS in the future would seem more appealing. However, a return to patron-client relationships is unlikely. The multi-polar nature of regional relations described above should dictate the shape of international involvement, rather than the superpowers’ grand strategy as in the Cold War or the short-lived War on Terror.


The Arab Spring has unsettled the Middle East’s international relations, by catalyzing existing trends and creating new challenges. The rise of Turkey and Qatar, the isolation of Israel and the diminishment of the US has increased, while the sudden weakness of Egypt and Syria has been unexpected. The Saudi-Iran rivalry continues, although the relative power of each state and the arena in which they compete has been transformed. The bi-polar regional order of the past decade – a Middle Eastern Cold War between a US-led block and an Iranian-led alliance – is coming to an end, making way for a multi-polar arena in which regional and, to a lesser extent, global powers will compete.

Historical parallels have their limitations but shed some light on what this new era might be like. If the 2000s were the second incarnation of Malcolm Kerr’s ‘Arab Cold War’, then perhaps the post Arab Spring Middle East of the 2010s may come to reflect the ‘Struggle for Syria’, outlined by Patrick Seale. Seale noted that in the Syria of 1945-58, a weak Syrian political system came to be the battleground for the leading regional powers of the day, with different political groupings each backed by separate governments. This trend has already been repeated at least twice before, in the Lebanon of 1975-90 and in Iraq from 2003-today. With Syria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen soon likely to join Lebanon and Iraq on the list of weak states in the Middle East, the potential for them to become new arenas of competition for the stronger states, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran and, to a lesser extent, Israel, is increased.

Shocking Twitter abuse of Mid East analyst Nabila Ramdani

Nabila Ramdani has written this moving piece in The Observer about being subjected to racist abuse on Twitter.  As someone who uses Twitter only occasionally I must admit to being truly appalled at the level of, quite frankly, sick sentiment aimed at her.  We all understand the value of Twitter and maintaining its free speech and dialogical approach is important. However, this kind of personal, deliberately hurtful and racist abuse should be condemned by all.  It is therefore even more shocking that the police have done little in response.

She writes:

When I first started receiving critical messages from people – via email, underneath my articles on the internet, or on sites like Twitter – I replied. The democratisation of the global media has created a hugely dynamic debating forum, and the majority of those participating are as courteous as they are articulate. I grew up on a council estate renowned for its lawlessness and have reported from war zones. I know exactly how to stand up for myself in fraught situations and will debate anything with anyone.

But when a “whore” hashtag (the device used to signal a discussion on Twitter) appeared against my name, everything changed. What distinguished the two men using the word (and its variations) was not that they wanted an argument, but that they wanted to attack me as viciously as possible. They spiced up their principal insult with as many sexual allusions as they could fit into the 140 characters that Twitter allows.

The senders were not difficult to track down. One has delivered more than 2,000 tweets to date and is linked to a London university. The other is a Conservative party activist from the home counties. He has only 68 followers after sending more than 4,000 tweets, but that is not the point. Both men are conventionally “respectable”, but consider it permissible to fabricate obscene claims about women they have never met, and to re-tweet them to as many of Twitter’s 200 million users as possible….

…If the police started to deal with this increasingly unpleasant problem quickly and fairly, it could be stigmatised in the way that abusive phone calls have been.

Instead, my exchange with Worthington [The assigned officer to this case]  made it clear that his force’s view of internet hate crimes extends solely to famous people. If prosecutions supporting much-vaunted anti-racism initiatives attract politically correct headlines, so much the better. Ordinary people, meanwhile, are ignored.