Sectarianism as Plan B: Saudi-Iranian identity politics in the Syria conflict

By Christopher Phillips, The Foreign Policy Centre

Saudi Arabia and Iran have both been deeply involved in the Syrian civil war from its beginning in 2011, each sponsoring rival sides. Both have utilised sectarian identity politics to further their goals and both have contributed to the growth of violence along sectarian lines. This has led to a characterisation by many that both are sectarian actors that immediately reach for identity politics as a tool of influence. However, a closer examination of the Syrian case would challenge this. Drawing on research by myself and Morten Valbjorn that examines the relationship between Syrian fighting groups and their external sponsors, this article argues that in Syria identity politics was not the immediate policy pursued by either Saudi Arabia or Iran.[1] Instead, sponsoring sectarian actors was a plan B after backing other, more inclusive actors failed. This suggests a degree of pragmatism from both governments, rather than being driven exclusively by sectarian zeal.

The Syrian conflict is often characterised as sectarian, but this is one strand of several driving the civil war.[2] There has been variation across Syria and over the course of the conflict. In some areas, the war has been driven more by political, economic and international factors than sectarianism. That said, an identity component has often been present, with violence, sexual assault and looting taking place along sectarian lines. Saudi Arabia and Iran have contributed to this. Saudi Arabia has sent arms and money to overtly sectarian Sunni Islamist fighters. Its government turned a blind eye for the first few years of the war to private Saudi donors sending money to radical Sunni groups, and it did little to clamp down on its sectarian preachers appearing on satellite television watched in Syria.

Iran’s sectarian activity was even more pronounced. From 2012 it sent Islamist Shi’a militia to Syria to fight for President Bashar al-Assad, with up to 8,000 fighters from its Lebanese ally Hizballah and 12,000 Afghani and Pakistani fighters present by 2017. It sent its own Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force officers, led by Major General Qassem Suleimani, to direct the war effort and retrain Syria’s military. Several of these retrained units were based around sectarian identities, as were the non-governmental pro-Assad militia they encouraged. The presence of Shi’a militia in the Syria conflict, many with an explicitly anti-Sunni agenda, helped to radicalise anti-Assad fighters, who were overwhelmingly Sunni, and further sectarianized the conflict.

However, it is important to note that turning to sectarian fighters was neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia’s first reaction, and their policies evolved from the failure of earlier options. Riyadh, initially sponsored moderates among those who took up arms against Assad. From early 2012 Saudi Arabia backed the Free Syria Army (FSA), which had a national Syrian rather than a Sunni sectarian focus, even though most were Sunni Muslims. Unlike other sponsors of the opposition like Qatar and Turkey who turned to more Islamist and sectarian fighters earlier, Saudi Arabia feared Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood and preferred the mostly secular former army officers of the FSA.

It was only after the FSA proved unable to defeat Assad and its fighters started joining more radical Islamist groups that Riyadh looked for alternatives. It eventually backed the Salafist Jaysh al-Islam in Damascus in late 2013, led by Zahran Alloush whose father was an imam in Saudi Arabia. This connection also led to it briefly backing the mostly Islamist Jaysh al-Fatah coalition in Idlib in 2015. Both included Sunni sectarianists. However, it encouraged Alloush and his successors to moderate their slogans.[3] This suggests that Saudi Arabia was pragmatic enough to recognise that ultra-sectarian actors would struggle to win in multi-faith Syria and must compromise. Moreover, Saudi did not abandon the FSA completely and maintained its sponsorship of the Southern Front, a south Syria FSA militia until 2017 at the same time. This shows a degree of expediency from Riyadh. It turned to Alloush in desperation, when plan A of backing the FSA failed. Yet even then it stuck with the southern FSA in the hope it would still triumph.

Iran was also more nuanced, turning to sectarian actors only after others failed. Tehran first sent weapons and advisers to help Assad’s army, the nominally inclusive Syrian Arab Army (SAA). Though its elite units were dominated by members of Assad’s Shi’a-linked Alawi sect, it was no sectarian institution, boasting Sunnis, Shi’as, Alawis and Christians in its ranks and utilising inclusive national symbols and slogans. However, the SAA performed poorly in the first year of the war, prompting Iran to send Suleimani to Damascus to salvage the situation. Within a few weeks, the Quds force commander reportedly stated, “The Syrian army is useless! Give me one brigade of Basij [the IRGC’s paramilitary force] and I could conquer the whole country!”[4] Soon Suleimani turned to Hizballah and other Shi’a militia from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to come to Syria. Having trained many of them himself, especially in Iraq during the post-2003 campaign against the US, Suleimani saw such sectarian actors as more dependable than the SAA.

Yet, as with the Saudis, this suggests a pragmatic rather than an exclusively sectarian motivation. These militias were utilised for their reliability and fighting ability rather than purely ideological reasons. Moreover, Iran used these groups to supplement rather than replace Assad’s national forces and the SAA continued to receive support. Indeed, when the Iranians reorganised Syria’s paramilitary forces in 2013 they gave it a national rather than sectarian name: The National Defence Forces (NDF). While the NDF did include sectarian militia, it retained a deliberately national character. Again, expediency may have driven this. Shi’as make up barely 1-2% of Syria’s population, and Alawis are barely 12%. Were Iran to encourage a purely sectarian chauvinistic discourse, they would have isolated key Christian, Druze and Sunni constituents that continued to back Assad.[5] Unlike in Iraq, where over 60% of the population is Shi’a, demographics in Syria were not in Suleimani’s favour. Even had he wanted to adopt a sectarian approach from the beginning, it would have been counter-productive.

Both Saudi Arabia and Iran, therefore, were not as sectarian as often characterised in their sponsorship of fighting groups in the Syrian civil war. Though both would eventually turn to sectarian militia, each did this only after their first option, more inclusive national-focused fighters, failed. Yet each continued to sponsor national groups alongside these sectarian actors, possibly recognising the impracticality of backing only exclusionary actors in a multi-faith country. In both cases, governments often portrayed as arch-sectarian actors showed a considerable degree of pragmatism and expediency.

[1] Chris Phillips and Morten Valbjorn, ‘What is in a Name?’: The Role of (Different) Identities in the Multiple Proxy Wars in Syria’, Small Wars & Insurgencies 29 (3), 414-433

[2] G. Abdo, The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shia–Sunni Divide. Brookings, SD: Saban Center for Middle East Policy Paper. April 10, 2013.

[3] Phillips and Valbjorn, ‘What is in a Name?’

[4] Dexter Filkins, ‘The shadow commander’, The New Yorker, September 2013, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/09/30/the-shadow-commander

[5] Chris. Phillips, The Battle for Syria: International rivalry in the New Middle East, 2016, London: Yale University Press, pp. 50-53.

Advertisements

The World Abetted Assad’s Victory in Syria

By Christopher Phillips, The Atlantic, 4 August 2018

After more than seven years of a civil war that has left half of Syria’s population displaced, cities reduced to rubble, and over 500,000 killed, President Bashar al-Assad appears to be on the brink of victory. In July, units loyal to Assad recaptured Deraa, where the peaceful protests that turned into a violent rebellion against him first began in 2011. The recapture came as Assad conquered the south, one of the last rebel holdouts.

The war is far from over, with the Kurdish east and rebel-held Idlib still out of regime hands, and any victory may prove pyrrhic given the devastation wrought. Even so, it now seems Assad is going nowhere. The Syrian dictator has outlasted Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy, and David Cameron—Western leaders who once expected his fall “within months.”

How did Assad survive? Some observers grew optimistic about the regime’s impending collapse as the Arab Spring saw neighboring autocrats fall. Yet incumbents have a massive advantage in armed rebellions, and most insurgencies since World War II have been defeated. Assad’s internal and external opponents did put serious pressure on his regime, to the extent that at several points internal collapse seemed possible. But Assad’s survival was no accident: There are clear domestic and external causes. The regime used cynical and brutal tactics to maintain key backing at home, while abroad it had steadfast allies and reluctant and incompetent enemies.

Syria’s own institutions helped Assad withstand the pressures of protest and war. Notably, the security services remained loyal. There was no anti-Assad coup. Though individual soldiers defected once fighting started, these came from non-elite conscript units and without heavy equipment. Casualties and defections saw Assad’s army shrink from 325,000 to 125,000 in four years, but many fled instead of fighting back, and the rebels rarely numbered more than 50,000.

Beyond the military, the most high-profile defections came in 2012 when Manaf Tlass, a Republican Guard general, Riad Hijab, the prime minister, and Jihad Makdissi, the foreign ministry’s spokesman, all fled. These figures were prominent, but had no real power. Those holding actual influence—the security chiefs, top military figures, and industry leaders—doubled down behind Assad.

This was primarily because Assad had inherited a coup-proofed regime from his father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad. Hafez packed security positions and elite units with loyalists, many of them fellow Alawis, a traditionally marginalized sect that made up 10-12 percent of the population. They were persuaded that the Assads were their best route to security and privilege. In the civil war, vital military units were dominated by Alawis, and Assad’s close relatives in particular. In 2011, among the most powerful security chiefs were the president’s brother, brother-in-law, and cousin. Syria’s leading security and military institutions were tightly bound to the fate of the president.

Second, Assad was able to retain the active or implicit support of key segments of the Syrian population. One ploy was a deliberate manipulation of sectarian identity. Both Hafez and Bashar al-Assad won support from Alawis, Christians (8 percent of the population), and Druze (3 percent), as well as many secularists within the 65 percent who were Sunni Arabs. They did this by presenting themselves as secular defenders of religious pluralism. As soon as unrest broke out in 2011, Assad falsely characterized protesters as violent, intolerant Islamists, and government posters appeared warning of sectarian divisions. Eventually, this worked. Early protests were diverse, but over time Alawis, Christians, and other minorities stayed away. They and many secular Sunnis remained neutral or fell behind Assad.

Material levers were also pulled. Assad’s economic policies helped cause the rebellion, which was strongest in neglected rural areas and among young people facing 25 percent unemployment. Yet the state still provided 20-30 percent of jobs, and some feared losing a paycheck. Indeed, Assad cleverly continued to pay and even raise state salaries throughout the war (despite bad inflation), including in areas out of his control. The middle classes who had benefitted from Assad’s policies were also slow to abandon him. While some in rebellious Homs funded the opposition, in wealthier Aleppo and Damascus they largely remained quiet.

There was also genuine ideological support for Assad. From the beginning, Assad insisted the rebellion was an externally orchestrated plot and, after a lifetime of absorbing propaganda, some believed him. Others feared political instability. The regime cynically cultivated supporters by introducing a sliver of reform, such as a new constitution. While his opponents rightly dismissed such “concessions” as meaningless, to supporters they were important.

Another key ploy was a campaign of intimidation. Oppositionists claimed that the “wall of fear” had been broken by their protests, but that was wishful thinking. Many were scarred by memories of the last rebellion against an Assad, when Hafez massacred at least 10,000 in Hama in 1982. The post-2011 repression was an amplified imitation of that. While many bravely risked their lives, others were evidently deterred.

Then there was the regime’s successful effort to divide, delegitimize, and radicalize the opposition. The protesters that emerged in 2011 threatened Assad’s dictatorship because they formed a peaceful, grassroots, democratic movement. The government preferred to crush them rather than reform, yet it recognized that the population would not stomach unjustified violence. So, it concocted a legitimizing narrative: It portrayed the oppositionists as violent, foreign, sectarian Islamists.

Having constructed its false narrative, the regime set about making it real. Peaceful organizers were specifically targeted, and by July 2011, 8,000 peoplehad been detained, facing torture, sexual assault, and humiliation. Of those who were lucky enough to be released (over 75,000 were “disappeared”), many either fled abroad or became radicalized. When the opposition ultimately shifted to a violent struggle, many of the nonviolent activists who might have resisted were in prison, exiled, or dead.

Meanwhile, the regime deliberately released jihadists from prison in the hope they would radicalize the opposition and confirm Assad’s claims it was violently Islamist. The leaders of two significant Islamist militias—Hassan Aboud of Ahrar as-Sham and Zahran Alloush of Jaysh al-Islam—were both in Assad’s prisons in early 2011. Future ISIS and Jubhat al-Nusra fighters were their cellmates. The regime later prioritized the fight against moderate opponents while leaving embryonic ISIS largely unharmed. This was partly pragmatic, as ISIS was in the peripheral east while other rebels threatened the western heartlands, but it was also strategic. Just as Assad targeted the non-violent opponents to ensure the rebellion turned violent, he focused on moderate armed rebels in the hope that only jihadists and his regime would be left for Syrians and the world to choose from.


Had there been no external involvement, these domestic ploys might have been enough for Assad to survive. But the uprising quickly became internationalized. Western governments called on Assad to stand aside in August 2011, and imposed sanctions. Regional governments led by Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia cut ties. Soon Assad’s foreign enemies were sponsoring his political opponents and aiding the armed rebels. Yet this was dwarfed by aid from the regime’s allies, Iran and Russia.

Assad’s friends consistently gave more than his enemies, providing vital political, economic, and military support. Russia used its UN Security Council veto 12 times to protect Assad from Western resolutions. Moscow and Tehran gave vital economic lifelines to offset the impact of sanctions and war. Russia, for example, printed Syrian bank notes to circumvent EU sanctions while Iran agreed to $4.6 billion in loans to Syria, which paid for weapons and salaries and kept the struggling state functioning.

Both governments also provided key military assistance. Iran initially sent weapons and advisers but increased its role after several Assad defeats in 2012-2013. It deployed foreign Shia militias, including Hezbollah, and reorganized Syria’s forces. Russia also offered arms early on, and intervened directly with its air force in 2015, when Assad looked vulnerable. This is what ultimately turned the tide, allowing Assad to retake key regions from the rebels and ISIS. Vladimir Putin consequently became the key powerbroker, striking deals with Iran, Turkey, and the U.S. to freeze the conflict with the rebels. However, these proved worthless when Assad broke the ceasefires in 2018—with Putin’s support.

Meanwhile, the political opposition’s foreign allies only exacerbated its ideological and tactical divisions. Foreign governments favored emigres over internal activists when they sponsored governments in exile such as the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC). Turkey and Qatar empowered Islamists within these bodies, notably the exiled Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. This drew ire from Saudi Arabia, which loathed the Brotherhood, and prompted Qatari- and Saudi-backed factionalism within the opposition. That ultimately caused the first president of the SOC to resign after only a few months. Such internal divisions were a gift to the regime.

Similarly, external powers weakened the armed opposition. Militias mostly formed locally, and attempts to unite them under a national command structure had mixed results. Ideological differences, particularly over the role of Islamism, further split the fighters. Secular and moderate Islamists were marginalized by hardliners such as Ahrar as-Sham, Jaysh al-IslamJabhat al-Nusra, and ISIS. This also alienated the Kurds (10 percent of the population), long oppressed by the Assads but largely secular, prompting them to become a neutral third force opposed to Assad, the rebels, and, later, ISIS. The rebels’ external allies fed these trends. Qatar claimed to support only the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA)’s militias, but actually backed a range of fighters, many Islamist. Turkey preferred groups allied to the Muslim Brotherhood and later sponsored Ahrar as-Sham. Saudi Arabia, which also initially preferred the FSA, ended up backing the Salafist Jaysh al-Islam. For several years the Gulf states also did little to prevent private Islamist donations heading to Syria. Foreign sponsors were therefore encouraging opposition militia to compete for external funds rather than unify. And few discouraged the shift toward radicalization.

 

It’s possible more decisive Western intervention might have toppled the regime, but Barack Obama prioritized other concerns over Assad’s defeat. The U.S. backed the rebels from the start, and the CIA oversaw arming efforts. Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus argued that the U.S. should step up its role by vetting, training, and equipping moderate rebels, yet Obama rejected this, believing it wouldn’t tip the balance and fearing the weapons would end up with jihadists. He had cause for concern. The trend toward radicalization (with Assad’s help) was well underway, while U.S. sponsorship of rebels in Libya had not prevented Qatar and others backing radical groups. Later in the war, when the U.S. did initiate a train-and-equip program, some of the fighters it armed were robbed by jihadists, while others sold their weapons. Whether he was right or wrong, Obama prioritized the fight against jihadism over that against Assad.

A similar prioritization was seen when it came to direct U.S. intervention. Obama had threatened Assad that using or moving his substantial chemical-weapons stockpile would mean crossing a red line. Yet when Assad allegedly gassed rebels in Ghouta in 2013, Obama pulled back from a proposed strike, preferring a Russian-brokered deal to remove the arsenal. Although a U.S. strike might have deterred Assad from further attacks or debilitated his forces sufficiently to allow a rebel victory, Obama was conscious of the risks. He had toppled Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, leading to chaos, not stability, and feared the same in Syria. However, a year later Obama did initiate strikes in Syriaagainst ISIS, after they captured Mosul. The fight against jihadism once again trumped the fight over Assad.

By the time Donald Trump came to office, Assad’s position was arguably already secure. Moreover, Trump’s focus in Syria was fighting ISIS, continuing Obama’s policies of backing Kurdish forces on the ground and largely ignoring Assad’s reconquest in the rebel-held west. While he did strike Assad twice after further use of chemical weapons, his priority seemed to be showing he was stronger than Obama rather than damaging the regime. His closeness to Russia also contributed to relative complicity, to the point of doing nothing to prevent Assad from retaking Deraa, even though it was located in a ceasefire zone that Trump himself had guaranteed in 2017. Despite seemingly wanting to be the anti-Obama, Trump continued his predecessors’ policy of prioritizing other issues over Assad’s defeat, enabling his survival.

From the outside, Assad’s victory looks like no victory at all. He is king of the ashes, overlooking a distraught country from his presidential palace. He has yet to conquer vast swathes of territory and faces ongoing terrorist attacks from jihadist sleeper cells. He must rebuild a heavily indebted, struggling economy, with a shrunken population shorn of much of its technical and intellectual skill. He is reliant on two powerful foreign allies, Russia and Iran, who have infiltrated state institutions and the economy and wield huge influence. He must placate the millions of loyal Syrians who have sacrificed their blood and treasure to keep him on his throne.

Yet to Assad and his inner circle, who have been playing a long game, it must seem these problems can still be surmounted, even if it takes decades. For them, the war was about survival, and in this sense they have won. Their own cynicism and ruthlessness at home combined with decisive assistance from abroad (whether intentional or not) has allowed them to remain in power. It was brutal and inhumane but, from their perspective, it worked. That is a chilling lesson for other dictators.

Ian Black Reviews ‘The Battle for Syria’

Book Review: Christopher Phillips ‘The Battle for Syria’

By Ian Black, LSE Middle East Centre Blog, 11 October 2016

Syria’s war is far from over but it is already the subject of a large number of books – many about the internal dynamics of the conflict or the headline-grabbing jihadis who dominate perceptions of it. Christopher Phillips’ impressively-researched study of its international dimensions is an important contribution to understanding the bleak story so far. Based on interviews with officials and a mass of secondary sources, it identifies and examines the key external components of the worst crisis of the 21stcentury: the fading of American power, Russian assertiveness, regional rivalries and the role of non-state actors from Hezbollah to ISIS.

Phillips’ principal argument is that the Syrian uprising of 2011 – pitting ordinary people against an unforgiving regime – was transformed into a civil war because outside involvement helped escalate and sustain it – and of course still does. Bashar al-Assad’s brutal crackdown was followed by other actions that made a significant difference: ‘omni-balancing’ Qatar’s early backing for rebel groups despite its own limited capacity; ill-considered US and Western calls for the Syrian president’s departure; Turkish and Saudi sponsorship of anti-Assad forces; and, from the start, Russian and Iranian support for Damascus that raised the stakes and created an asymmetry of strategic commitment that persists to this day.

Inaction mattered too – whether in the lack of adequate assistance for the rebels or Barack Obama’s failure to response to the breaching of his famous ‘red line’ when Assad used chemical weapons in Ghouta in August 2013. Phillips correctly acknowledges the lingering after-effect of the false prospectus of the 2003 Iraq war on the British parliamentary vote against military action but I think underplays the wider paralysing role of that intervention.

It was the misfortune of Syrians that their chapter of the Arab uprisings opened in what the author succinctly characterises as ‘an era of regional uncertainty as the perception of US hegemony was slowly coming undone’. Obama’s reluctance to get involved may well have made sense after the lessons of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, but he was unable to manage his allies and, crucially, raised unrealistic expectations amongst Syrians and the Gulf states. Only ISIS, with its transnational agenda, moved him to act.

The landmarks of the crisis are familiar but they are illuminated by some fascinating details: Before 2011 knowledge about Syria was surprisingly limited, so there was insufficient understanding of the differences between its security-obsessed, ‘coup-proofed’ regime and those in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain. In 2009, the US Department of State Syria desk consisted of one official; of 135 Turkish diplomats working on the Arab world, only six spoke Arabic. Francois Hollande’s diplomatic adviser, wedded to the ‘domino theory’ that meant Assad would follow Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi, didn’t want to hear the nuanced reports from the well-informed French ambassador in Damascus. Mistaken analysis drove what Phillips calls the ‘escalator of pressure’. Russia, with better intelligence, understood that Assad was more secure than others predicted (or wanted to believe) and that the appetite for western involvement was limited.

If underestimating Assad’s durability was a key failure, that was compounded by over-stating the capabilities and cohesiveness of the opposition. Sponsorship by rivals who prioritised their own agendas, misleading extrapolations from the Libyan example, inevitable tensions between the external opposition and fighters on the ground, and the exclusion of the Kurds were all highly damaging. Policy towards the armed rebel groups was incoherent: despite vast expenditure, no foreign state was able to gain leverage over them.

International and regional institutions performed little better, Phillips argues. The short-lived Arab League mission to Syria was led by a Sudanese general linked to the genocide in Darfur. UN envoys Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi failed to overcome US and Arab resistance to Iran taking part in the 2012 Geneva conference, thus excluding a key player at a sensitive moment. Staffan de Mistura shuttled between parties who refused to even meet each other in Geneva, where the Syrian government delegation specialised in stonewalling and abuse. It has not been a case of third time lucky for the UN. ‘Everybody had their agenda’, in Brahimi’s words, ‘and the interests of the Syrian people came second, third or not at all’.

This judicious and measured book stands well back from the Twitter-driven ‘war of narratives’ that has distorted too much media reporting on the Syrian conflict. In the heat and controversy of complex and terrible events, it is helpful to pause and look coolly at the big picture. But it is sobering to contemplate the damning evidence of how outside actors helped fan the flames of ‘an internationalised civil war’ without any end in sight.

The US and Russia could help end the Syria conflict

But are they hurting enough?

By Christopher Phillips, in Prospect, 26 August 2016

The shocking images coming from Aleppo in recent weeks are a stark reminder that there still seems no end in sight for Syria’s brutal civil war, now well into its fifth year. Over 500,000 have been killed and five million are refugees. What began as a largely peaceful revolt against Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship has now morphed into a brutal, multi-facetted conflict with heavy international involvement. Might international players hold the key to the war’s overdue end?

International interventions in civil wars are nothing new and political scientists have long sought to analyse their impact. Several studies show that while heavy intervention on one side can bring about a swift end to a civil war, “balanced interventions,” when multiple actors intervene on each side, prolong conflict by creating a stalemate. Syria is a clear case of such a balanced intervention. From the beginning of the war Assad’s allies, Russia and Iran, have been willing to commit more to helping the regime than its foreign enemies—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the west—have to toppling it. By providing weapons, money, diplomatic support and more recently troops and airpower, Moscow and Tehran have ensured the regime’s medium-term survival. However, they have not solved Assad’s chronic manpower shortage, making it difficult for the regime to reconquer and hold hostile lost territory. Assad’s enemies have given the rebels money and weapons, but this has been hampered by western reluctance about the involvement of radical jihadists in the opposition and by rivalry among Riyadh, Doha and Ankara. While the rebels gained sufficient support to remain in the field in some capacity, they have never received support that matches that given to Assad. Toppling the Syrian dictator by military means is extremely unlikely.

Negotiation rather than military victory has therefore long seemed the most likely way the conflict can end. However, as seen by the failure of peace processes in 2012, 2014 and this year neither the regime nor the rebels seem willing to make significant compromises (primarily on whether Assad can remain as president) and their external backers have proved unwilling or unable to pressure them.

Again, political science offers some explanations for this. In past civil conflicts, belligerents have only seriously negotiated when they feel they will gain more from peace talks than war. This tends to happen when actors have reached a “hurting stalemate”: when continuing the war is more costly than compromise. However, neither of Assad’s key international allies are currently in such a position. Both Iran and Russia have lost personnel since both stepped up their involvement in 2015, but with Russia losing around 20 and Iran 400 men, not enough body bags are arriving home to create significant domestic pressure for them to change their policy on Syria. Nor is either really financially burdened by the campaign: Russia is reportedly spending $4m a day in Syria, but with an annual defence budget of $50bn this is affordable, despite the weak state of Russia’s economy. Likewise, Iran’s anticipated economic opening after the end of western sanctions gives it more money to pour into the campaign. Of the rebels’ key supporters, Saudi Arabia is not hurting either. Again, its economy is struggling with low oil prices, but the financial support sent to the rebels is still easily affordable. Moreover, unlike Syria’s neighbours, Saudi Arabia has not suffered the conflict’s immediate spillover in the form of refugees or radical militants, so has little incentive to shift its approach.

The two key external players that are hurting are the west and Turkey. Unsurprisingly, these are the actors seemingly most willing to change position. Turkey, struggling with over two million Syrian refugees and multiple terror attacks from Islamic State (IS) and Kurdish groups linked to the Syrian war, has recently softened its line. A growing rapprochement with Russia has seen prime minister Binali Yıldırım suggest there is some leeway on Assad’s future, previously a red line for Ankara. Damascus seems open to this new stance, symbolically bombing Turkey’s Kurdish enemies in Hasakeh last week. European leaders, suffering from the migrant crisis and increased IS terrorism have also hinted at a softer line on Assad, with various leaders suggesting the Syrian president may not have to leave immediately, while US Secretary of State John Kerry is reportedly in deep discussions with Moscow about a possible settlement. However, even though Turkey and the west are hurting, both have invested heavily in the Syrian opposition and it seems unlikely either is at a point to cut their losses and walk away, which would represent an unacceptable loss in international prestige.

So what might change to make these key international actors hurt more and take negotiations more seriously? The election of a new US president in November may shift Washington’s approach. Some hope that Hillary Clinton, who advocated more action in Syria as Secretary of State and is closer to the anti-Assad Gulf states than Barack Obama is, will adopt a more aggressive stance, such as deploying a no-fly zone over rebel held areas or sending better weaponry. However, to escalate the US presence to the point that Russia and Iran begin “hurting” sufficiently to compromise would require a major commitment of US military resources. It would risk retaliation from Russia in an arena that the US has not historically seen as in its vital interest—an argument regularly made by Barack Obama for his own limited involvement. Moreover, US presidents rarely seek out major conflicts “of choice” early in their first term in office, fearing a quagmire that may damage their reelection prospects. Crucially, outside the DC Beltway, there is little domestic demand for the US to play a more active role in Syria.

Alternatively, should Donald Trump be elected, with his preference for a reduced international role for the US, it is possible he might entertain a deal with Vladimir Putin, perhaps keeping Assad in power and ending US support for the rebels. However, were Trump even to entertain such a potentially humiliating climbdown, there is no guarantee that allowing Assad to “win” would end the war. As discussed, even with Russian and Iranian assistance, Assad lacks the manpower to reconquer all of Syria. Large stretches of territory would remain potentially dangerous “ungoverned spaces” controlled by rebel groups, the Kurds, IS and new groups that may yet emerge. Moreover, Saudi Arabia and possibly Turkey would be unlikely to accept such an outcome and, with their ties to the US already strained, would likely keep backing anti-Assad forces, continuing the war in some form.

Sadly then, it seems unlikely that enough key foreign actors in the Syrian civil war will experience enough hurt to end the conflict any time soon. A change in US president does not seem likely to prompt such a shift. More dramatic but less likely changes seem necessary, such as a major shift in Russian, Iranian or Saudi policy. In their absence, Syria’s brutal civil war looks set to continue.

The Battle for Syria – available for pre-order!

My new book, The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East is out in September, but you can pre-order now on Amazon or via the publishers, Yale University Press.

Book cover

Most accounts of Syria’s brutal, long-lasting civil war focus on a domestic contest that began in 2011 and only later drew foreign nations into the escalating violence. Christopher Phillips argues instead that the international dimension was never secondary but that Syria’s war was, from the very start, profoundly influenced by regional factors, particularly the vacuum created by a perceived decline of U.S. power in the Middle East. This precipitated a new regional order in which six external protagonists-the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar-have violently competed for influence, with Syria a key battleground.

Drawing on a plethora of original interviews, Phillips constructs a new narrative of Syria’s war. Without absolving the brutal Bashar al-Assad regime, the author untangles the key external factors which explain the acceleration and endurance of the conflict, including the West’s strategy against ISIS. He concludes with some insights on Syria and the region’s future.

‘Syria’s horrific civil war has been profoundly shaped by the competitive interventions and proxy wars by external powers. The Battle for Syria offers a brilliant, essential account of the international dimension of Syria’s descent from uprising into insurgency and brutal state violence. This sober and judicious book will become a standard text for those seeking to understand Syria’s tragedy.’ – Marc Lynch, author of The New Arab Wars: Anarchy and Uprising in the 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]

Achievements

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.

Conclusion

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)

Understanding Syria’s four-front war

By Christopher Phillips

Middle East Eye, 5 August 2014

Syria’s civil conflict has evolved into a four-front war involving a fight between Islamic State and Damascus, between IS and mainstream rebels, another between the rebels and Assad – and finally one between IS and Syria’s Kurdish militias

As the world media has been preoccupied with the Gaza conflict, Syria has just had the bloodiest week of its civil war. Some 1,700 were killed in seven days, with a renewed push from Islamic State (IS) accounting for much of the violence.

Confident after its victories in Iraq and deploying newly looted military hardware, IS’s sudden charge and the reaction to it in Syria and outside, has tilted the conflict on its axis, challenging various assumptions and shifting dynamics. Increasingly, we can talk about a war being fought on four overlapping fronts by four groupings of actors: the Assad government, IS, the mainstream rebels and the Kurds.

The first front is between IS and President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Assad facilitated IS’ rise by cynically releasing jihadists from prison to radicalize the opposition and then deliberately avoiding military confrontation. Its growth has helped him. IS alarmed the West, prompting some to suggest a rapprochement with Damascus is the least bad option; it terrified his own population, reinforcing the government’s message that it was their only defense; and it physically attacked his enemies in the mainstream rebels while avoiding his own troops. Any implicit alliance was shattered this month, however, when IS stormed three separate government targets in Homs, Raqqa and Hassakeh, killing hundreds of government troops, then gruesomely videoing their heads on spikes afterwards.

Such heavy losses have rocked Assad’s domestic supporters, provoking rare outrage and criticism on social media. Most accept the government’s characterization of all the opposition as sectarian jihadists and many, especially Alawis, have sent thousands to die to defeat them.

IS seem the most brutal of all, especially to another core constituent, Syria’s Christians who have been aghast at the recent expulsion of their coreligionists from Mosul. Yet these defeats challenge the government’s ability to actually defend its supporters. Assad’s forces are actually weaker as a result of the IS attack in Iraq, as many of the Iraqi Shiite militia who had fought for him returned to defend their homes. However, he cannot afford to isolate his base, and a more concerted campaign against IS can be expected, stretching his resources thinner. This was seen already when one lost area, the Shaar gas field in Homs, was retaken.

Assad misread Syria’s second front, the war between IS and the mainstream rebels. He assumed that IS would finish off the weakened rebels before turning on him. True, IS has recently conquered many rebel territories, pushing Jubhat al-Nusra out of Deir es-Zur and making inroads into the Aleppo countryside, but it is no longer playing Assad’s game. As it expands and occupies more land, it requires further troops and an acquiescent local population. While it still seeks military victories over rival rebel groups, it also wants to woo their fighters. Similarly, according to the Delma Institute’s Hassan Hassan, it is making more effort to win hearts and minds in the regions it conquers. Turning its guns on Assad achieves both goals: countering any former accusations that it was the government’s ally and presenting itself as the best route to its overthrow.

On the other side, the mainstream rebels seem as divided as ever. While they temporarily united to push IS out of the north in January, the various militia and fiefdoms continue to compete for territory and resources. The Washington Post noted how the US’ closest ally, Harakat Hazm clashed with Ahrar as-Sham over control of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing last week. Despite Western attempts to paint these rebels as “moderate” the reality is that most are, more accurately “non-IS Islamists”, with Jubhat al-Nusra an al-Qaeda affiliate. Given how fluid allegiance to rebel militia has been, there is a real chance that idealistic young fighters impressed by IS’ momentum could peel away.

This is increasingly likely as the rebels face defeat in Syria’s third front, the war between themselves and Assad. By ignoring IS, Assad has focused on recapturing Aleppo. He has replicated the brutal tactics used to recapture Homs in March: depopulating hostile districts with barrel bombs before moving on the rebel fighters remaining.

Retaking Syria’s second city would allow Assad to declare the war won, even if much of rural Syria remains out of his control, and would certainly cripple the rebels. This decline and IS’ surge has prompted urgency in Washington, and the familiar calls to “arm the rebels” are heard again, with some proposing the rebels could be trained to simultaneously resist Assad and IS.

This is fanciful. IS defeated Iraq’s national army within days and there is no reason to suggest an uncoordinated collection of feuding militia could rapidly overcome three years of disunity to do better. Even if they could unite, the resources proposed are too few. President Obama has authorized $500m to train and arm rebels, but this won’t appear until 2015 and the covert weaponry delivered so far is restricted to eight small carefully vetted groups, having limited impact.

Moreover, after the MH17 disaster in Ukraine, there is even less appetite from the White House to deliver the anti-aircraft MANPADS that hawks demand. More positively, after three years of backing rival rebel groups, the IS crises seems to have sobered Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and stronger coordination may follow. These efforts may prove enough to keep the mainstream rebels in the field, probably around Deraa and Idleb, and may even prevent too many fighters switching to IS. However, it is unlikely they can form a realistic rival to IS and the increased support will probably come too late to prevent Assad’s march on Aleppo.

Changes have also come on Syria’s fourth and least reported front: the battle between IS and Syria’s Kurdish militia. The Kurdish militias, led by the PYD – the PKK’s Syrian wing – have used the Syrian civil war to carve out autonomous regions, clashing with IS in the process. July saw intense fighting over the PYD-controlled border town of Ain al-Arab / Kobani, prompting a radical new position from Turkey.

Fearful of Kurdish nationalism, Turkey had previously opposed the PYD closing its border to prevent any support from the PKK. In contrast it allegedly turned a blind eye to those supporting IS. However, the IS attacks into Iraq prompted a U-turn. With Ankara now realizing the size of the IS threat and fearful that Ain al-Arab would give it a launch pad into Turkey, the border was opened prompting a stream of 1000 PKK fighters into Syria to help the PYD hold off the advance. While Kurdish-IS clashes will likely continue, the emergence of a united PYD-PKK military force is a new dynamic. Ironically it may provide Turkey with a much-needed IS buffer, but it also increases the likelihood of an autonomous Kurdish Syrian region becoming a reality.

Despite these changing dynamics, none of the four groupings looks likely to win outright. Assad might take Aleppo, but he will face increased public pressure to take on IS, stretching his limited military resources. The mainstream rebels may be facing imminent defeat, but they probably have enough external support to remain in the field.

Syria’s Kurds now have PKK support, but that remains subject to Turkish border policy. Even IS, seemingly in the ascendency, must manage the shift from invader to occupier, and win over enough fighters and civilians to continue its march west. IS’ recent charge may have shifted, dissolved or solidified the Syrian civil war’s fronts and actors, but it seems more likely to perpetuate the conflict further rather than hurry its end.