BICOM Analysis: Syria and the awakening of the Arab League

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Key points

  • This week’s Arab League decision to impose sanctions against Damascus, following its earlier decision to suspend Syria, represents a major departure for the league.
  • This decision was brought about by a number of factors, including the growing assertiveness and dominance of Saudi Arabia and Qatar in intra-Arab politics, and an increased perceived need by Arab leaders to respond to public opinion.
  • The near unanimity of the Arab League decision reflects the consensus on the Syrian issue between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, despite their differences on other issues.
  • The growing assertiveness of Arab states acting against both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the interests of his Iranian backers will be welcome to Israel, particularly in the context of the imminent US withdrawal from Iraq.

Introduction: shifting dynamics in the Arab League

This week’s decision by the Arab League to impose sanctions against Syria, following its earlier decision to suspend its membership, is one of the most noteworthy diplomatic responses so far in the context of the ‘Arab Spring’. The league had long been regarded by Arabs and non-Arabs alike as a largely irrelevant, impotent and frequently divided body.

The league’s actions against Syria even appear to contradict its own constitution, which states in  Article VIII that members ‘shall respect the systems of government established in the other member-states and regard them as exclusive concerns of those states,’ and that each ‘shall pledge to abstain from any action calculated to change established systems of government.’

Whilst the Arab League did set a precedent by uniting against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Gaddafi was an isolated figure in the Arab world. The league’s actions against Syria are more controversial and have greater regional significance. They indicate that something has changed.

The key to understanding the change is largely to be found in the regional ambitions and stances of two major players: Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The leading role now taken by these two rival monarchies reflects an additional, important trend in the Arab Spring. With the exception of Bahrain, Arab monarchs have so far fared better than Arab presidents in managing the domestic political pressures of the Arab Spring.


What was the Arab League’s ultimatum to Syria?

The Arab League’s suspension of Syria’s membership came after Damascus refused to implement a league-devised plan to end the violence in Syria. The plan called for freeing protestors imprisoned during the uprising, withdrawing the armed forces from the cities, initiating dialogue between the regime and the opposition and dispatching Arab League monitors to Syria. Syria had said it agreed to the plan, but failed to implement it.

The Syrian regime’s survival appears now to depend on force alone. Implementation of the Arab League plan would mean the withdrawal of Syrian forces from key urban areas, which would help facilitate the construction of an alternative authority. Assad cannot satisfy the demands of the protestors without surrendering his exclusive right to rule. His response to the Arab League initiative was therefore a ploy to gain time.

Why is the Arab League asserting itself?

The response to the Syrian crisis reflects an unusual situation in which the interests of the most powerful forces in the Arab League are aligned on the issue, making concrete action possible, despite a minority of states being opposed.

There is not unanimity among Arab states on Syria. Yemen and Lebanon voted against suspension and Iraq abstained. Yemen evidently feared a similar Arab League intervention in its own affairs, whereas Lebanon is ruled by a Hezbollah-dominated government closely aligned with Syria. The Shia-led Iraqi government has close relations with Syria and Assad’s main strategic patron, Iran. Nonetheless, with 18 out of 22 members of the league in favour of expulsion, it is a remarkable development. What explains it?

The increased need for Arab elites and governments to be responsive to their public opinions should be taken into account. The upheavals of 2011 and the increasing influence of Arabic satellite television make it less feasible for elites simply to ignore public opinion. The two main channels, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, maintained by Qatar and Saudi Arabia respectively, have been beaming images of Syrian repression into homes across the region for the last eight months.

With the departure of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are emerging as key power brokers in the Arab League. They have a history of fractious relations with each other, and on various issues, including relations with Iran, they have differing interests and stances. Saudi Arabia is an opponent of Iran. Qatar, a small emirate with a tiny population sandwiched between Saudi Arabia and Iran, meanwhile, maintains cordial relations with the Iranians out of necessity. Qatar shares with Iran control of the massive South Pars Gas Field, on which Qatar’s wealth is heavily dependent. But on Syria, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are in agreement.

Saudi Arabia is currently investing heavily in its own defences and its regional diplomatic standing. It is doing so because it lacks confidence in the ability or will of its old patron, the US, to safeguard Saudi interests and to combat the power of Iran, Riyadh’s main rival. Riyadh is thus emerging as the leading ‘status quo’ power in the Middle East, opposing both Iranian expansionism and revolutionary Sunni Islamism, and supportive of western-aligned states.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), long regarded as merely a club for oil-rich Gulf states, is now evolving into a region-wide organisation bringing together the relatively stable Arab monarchies, with Jordan and Morocco recently invited to join. This is an attempt by Riyadh and similar-minded Gulf monarchies to project their influence. The stability of the region’s monarchies, in contrast to the republics, is one of the most notable aspects of the Arab upheavals, and a dynamic the Saudis are keen to preserve.

The Saudis are also promoting their influence by committing the equivalent of close to £10 billion annually to help countries weakened economically by the current turmoil. They have pledged significant aid to Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain and Oman. These countries, along with Libya, the other Gulf emirates, the Palestinian Authority and the Arab states of North Africa, all voted for Syria’s expulsion. The combination of a united Saudi-Qatar stance, Saudi money, sectarian sentiment among Sunni Arab states against the Alawite-dominated regime’s repression, and perceived need for a greater responsiveness to public opinion, explain the Arab League stance.

The Saudis are also investing in ‘hard power’. They are planning to roughly double the size of their armed forces over the next decade.  The intervention of the Saudi-led Peninsula Shield force in Bahrain earlier this year was one of the most significant events of the regional turmoil of 2011. It was the herald of a new period of Saudi proactive activity to contain Iran, of which the diplomatic action against Syria forms an additional element.

The strength of Saudi opposition to Iranian ambitions is not to be taken entirely for granted. Riyadh is dependent on US military support. Should a serious reduction of US commitment to Saudi and Gulf security take place, it is conceivable that at some stage Riyadh could seek an accommodation with Iran.

For its part, Qatar decided to abandon Damascus at an early stage of the uprising against Assad. Qatar had previously been a supporter of Assad. In recent years, Qatar has used its wealth to project regional influence out of all proportion to the size of its tiny population. It apparently concluded that in the battle for influence in the Arab world – which it has played so successfully in recent years – supporting a repressive, non-Sunni regime at war with a largely Sunni population was inadvisable.

Qatari and Saudi interests thus came together on the issue of Syria, which is fast becoming a cause célèbre in the Sunni Arab world. Their growing influence in the region comes at a time when other potential major players are marginalised. Egypt is currently engaged with internal turmoil, which is likely to prevent it from projecting its regional influence, at least for the time being. Iraq is only now emerging from US occupation and is in any case now a Shia-dominated state, which is likely to be heavily influenced by Iran.

What does this mean for Israel?

Despite Riyadh’s very hostile attitude to Israel on an ideological level, the interests of the two countries converge when it comes to opposing Iranian influence, and that of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Assad’s Syria. As such, a more active Saudi Arabia in regional affairs has benefits for Israel.

Israel has no control over in the outcome of the current conflict within Syria; it can only watch and react to events. It is impossible to predict the precise nature of a post-Assad regime in Syria. Any process of regime change looks likely to be unstable, and could result in a weak and divided state. But Syria is 75 percent Sunni, and it is very likely that if Assad falls, he will be replaced by a Sunni regime of one kind or another. Whilst such a regime may not be friendly to Israel, it will very probably be hostile to Iran. For Iranian regional ambitions, the loss of a friendly regime in Damascus will have very negative consequences, since it will remove the possibility of a contiguous chain of pro-Iranian states reaching to the Mediterranean, and will leave Hezbollah isolated and without a land supply line in the event of conflict.

More broadly, given that US power has the appearance of waning in the Gulf, and with Mubarak gone, it is welcome for Israel that the Saudis appear to be leading the Gulf states in containing Iranian influence, rather than accommodating Iran.