With Donald Trump in the White House and Russian President Vladimir Putin eyeing a bigger role in the Middle East, it’s springtime for secular autocrats. Ask Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and he would tell you there is also no better time for a crisis in the Gulf.
A sudden flare-up of tension among the Arab oil monarchies in early June has seen some of Assad’s fiercest opponents go head to head. Accused of breaking the Saudi-led consensus, having affairs with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, and of sponsoring extremist groups, Qatar is now under blockade and faces crushing pressure from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and their allies; relief comes only in the form of supplies flown in from Turkey and Iran. Although no one has yet said a kind word about the Syrian president, he must be enjoying the spectacle: not only are Assad’s enemies fighting, they are also stumbling over each other to win Moscow’s support—and that could provide him with a political opening.
Arab Nationalism without Arabs
As head of the Arab world’s last official pan-Arabist government, Bashar al-Assad is in the uncomfortable position of not having all that many Arabs on his side. Since the start of the Syrian war in 2011, two non-Arab states have in fact mattered most to the preservation of his rule: Iran and Russia.
By contrast, Syria’s ties with Saudi Arabia had long been poor and fell apart completely in 2011. Emiratis and Kuwaitis piled on, and Assad’s formerly close alliance with Qatar and non-Arab Turkey turned into bitter hostility. Though the Saudi-Emirati and Turkish-Qatari regional blocks continued to wrestle each other for regional dominance, Arab politics had turned decisively against Assad.
In autumn 2011, the Arab League suspended Syria’s membership, which mattered little to the war but was a stinging insult to a country that never missed a chance to remind the world that it is, in words known to every Syrian, “the beating heart of Arabism.”
Something of that legacy remains. Syria has been ruled by the Baath Party since the 1960s, and both Bashar and his father-predecessor Hafez al-Assad often draped their realpolitik in Arab nationalist slogans. Even though Baathism long ago expired as an ideological force, Damascus remains attentive to its regional environment in ways often ignored in Western analysis—and Syrian diplomacy never stopped searching for Arab allies.
Some For, Some Against, and Some on the Fence
While most of the Arabian Peninsula has cut ties to Damascus, Bashar al-Assad does, in fact, have a few friends in the rest of the Arab world, and there are several fence-sitters who might swing his way in the future. Most obviously and importantly, relations with neighboring Lebanon and Iraq remain strong, largely due to shared enemies and the influence of Iran-friendly forces there.
While most of the Arabian Peninsula has cut ties to Damascus, Bashar al-Assad does, in fact, have a few friends in the rest of the Arab world, and there are several fence-sitters who might swing his way in the future.
An odd man out in Gulf politics, Oman has also stayed on decent terms with Damascus. Muscat even hosted Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem on a rare trip to the Gulf in 2015, apparently related to some species of under-the-table negotiations.
Jordan is a more complicated case. Amman still provides limited support for anti-Assad groups, but never had its heart in it. King Abdullah seems anxious to end up on the right side of U.S. policy, whatever that is, while also courting Emirati and Saudi financial support—but most of all, he is looking for internal stability in Jordan. Though Syria’s ambassador was expelled from Amman in 2014, that was largely due to his own shenanigans, and diplomatic relations have never formally ended. Discouraged by the rise of the Islamic State in 2014 and Russia’s intervention in 2015, the Hashemite kingdom has since taken a step back to focus on border security. While Abdullah continues to facilitate U.S. intervention on Syrian soil, to the lasting irritation of Damascus or Tehran, he seems to have made his peace with the idea of Assad staying; the Jordanian military recently signaled that it wouldn’t mind if the Syrian army retook the border.
In the Maghreb, Algeria looks askance at Syria’s Islamist opposition and has preserved its old ties to Damascus, the warmth of their relationship growing along with Assad’s chances of winning. Although the country is weighed down by low oil prices and internal jockeying to succeed the ailing but irremovable President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Algeria has given discreet aid to the Syrian government through the whole crisis, including by providing mediation, diplomatic backing, and even, it is said, some low-level military support.
Algeria’s next-door neighbor Tunisia cut ties to Syria in February 2012, and the Islamists of Ennahda held to an anti-Assad course thereafter. But in the elections of October 2014, an anti-Islamist coalition took charge. On the campaign trail, current president Beji Caid Essebsi described the situation in Syria as “internal splintering due to foreign interventions” and promised to normalize ties. Once in office, he restored relations on a consular level and opened a security liaison office in Damascus, but has so far refrained from going further, wary of the response from Qatar and others with influence over Tunisia’s frail economy.
Egypt has also spun around from a militantly anti-Assad position under the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, to a closeted pro-Assadism after then-defense minister Abdelfattah al-Sisi’s 2013 coup d’état. A military strongman who models himself on the Arab nationalist autocrats of the 1960s, Sisi says the conflict should be handled by the Syrian army, though he also encourages some form of political solution. Last winter saw a string of reports in pro-Assad publications about Egypt boosting its never-broken Syrian security ties in order to work with Russia and smash jihadis, but although Damascus tries hard to tickle Egypt’s interest in full normalization, Sisi has so far kept the relationship confined to counterterrorism—broadly defined. Like his Tunisian counterpart, the Egyptian leader’s pro-Assad (or rather anti-Islamist) inclinations are tempered by concern over how the Gulf states would react. Without oil supplies and regular cash infusions from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the latter being Sisi’s most reliable supporter, Egypt’s economy would wither.
The Qatar Crisis Shakes Up Relations
In other words, much still hinges on the ultra-wealthy oil regimes of the Gulf, so the fact that they are now at daggers drawn is a very good thing for Bashar al-Assad. Not only will his enemies spend their time plotting against each other instead of against him; the crisis has also widened old fissures in the anti-Assad camp and reshuffled regional interests.
Much still hinges on the ultra-wealthy oil regimes of the Gulf, so the fact that they are now at daggers drawn is a very good thing for Bashar al-Assad.
Syrian officials are clearly much amused, with Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Meqdad calling it a “farce” and mockingly asking where the news is: “Is the news that U.S. President Trump has announced that this or that state is involved in terrorism? We think Qatar and Saudi Arabia are both in up over their ears in terrorism, which they perpetrate on Syrian soil.”
The Gulf affair may still come to nothing from the Baath regime’s point of view, but given that the Syrian army has improved its military position so dramatically in the past few years and yet has nothing to show for it politically, any chance for a diplomatic reset should be in Assad’s interest.
If Qatar is forced to kiss the ring or just badly battered by the Saudi-Emirati block, its influence in Syria may wane. That would have an immediate impact on Syria’s northern border, where Qatari arms and money are funneled in via Turkey. Doha’s allies are clearly worried. The Gulf crisis will have “negative effects” on the Syrian opposition, said an official in the Qatari- and Turkish-backed Islamist faction Ahrar al-Sham, and added, “the regime and the Iran-backed Shia militias will be the primary beneficiaries.”
The continued friction with Doha and its allies could also make the United Arab Emirates slide further down the anti-Brotherhood, pro-secular autocrat axis it is already on—very possibly emboldened by the tweetplomacy of Donald Trump.
Should the dispute drag on, the continued friction with Doha and its allies could also make the United Arab Emirates slide further down the anti-Brotherhood, pro-secular autocrat axis it is already on—very possibly emboldened by the tweetplomacy of Donald Trump. And while a hardening of Emirati or Saudi views might not benefit Assad directly—his ties to Iran remain an obstacle—it could certainly hurt his opponents. At the same time, the conflict may squeeze Qatar back some way toward Iran, which has already nimbly seized the day by flying food into blockaded Doha. Meanwhile, Qatar’s primary ally, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, made good with Russia last year and is now trying to persuade Putin to stand up for Doha.
There is no clean or predictable outcome to this mess, but the mere fact that intra-Arab relations have become so tangled while Assad’s place in Syria seems secure will likely push his fate a few rungs down on everyone’s ladder of priorities. And if this happens, the isolation of his regime will seem like a lesser issue on which concessions can be granted, for a price.
The only problem is that Assad’s own dirt-poor, pinned-down government won’t be able to pay that price—if there is to be any bartering done with panicky Arab princes, it will be up to Russia or Iran. And so, as always, intra-Arab politics turn out to be not so Arab at all.
Cover Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin meets Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in Moscow in January 2017. Photo: Russian government.