The Syrian Azimuth of Gulf Talks: Is the Wind of Change Losing Power?

On March 7, the Russian delegation led by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov completed its tour of the Persian Gulf countries. The discussion of Syrian issues occupied a special place in its extensive agenda. Regrettably, the hope that the regional climate around Syria would warm up did not materialize for the time being. The wind of change from the Gulf seems to be losing power under US pressure but the ship of Russian diplomacy, for which the Syrian azimuth remains one of the key landmarks, should be picking up speed, believes Vladimir Bartenev, director of the Center for Security and Development Studies of the School of World Politics at Moscow State University and senior research associate of the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies of the RAS Institute of Oriental Studies

On March 7, the Russian delegation led by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov completed its tour of the Persian Gulf countries. The chosen itinerary – Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – demonstrated Moscow’s striving to ignore the new dividing lines, including those in the air, mapped out between neighboring states in 2017. 

The visits had a fairly extensive agenda that has already been covered by a number of journalists who accompanied the delegation. Naturally enough, bilateral relations were central to it. In the last few years they followed rather predictable lines and the visits confirmed their sustainability once again. 

At the same time the sides compared their positions on the most urgent regional issues that have a significant element of uncertainty. This applies to the issue of ensuring collective security and mutual relations in the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC), the Palestinian problem, and the situation in the Arab countries affected by internationalized domestic conflicts. Special attention was paid to Syrian problems, which tend to reveal deep divergences between different regional and extra-regional actors. 

Discussing the Syrian file in Doha, Riyadh, Kuwait City and Abu Dhabi, Russian diplomacy hoped for the consolidation of the trend towards the warming of the regional climate around Syria that revealed itself in the past few months, on the eve of the Arab League summit in Tunisia in late March. There were many positive signs indeed: the visit by President of Sudan Omar al-Bashir to Damascus, resumption of the work by the embassies of Bahrain and the UAE, which want to counter the growing influence of Iran, Turkey and Qatar, the visit of a representative Syrian delegation led by Secretary General of the Federation of the Syrian Chambers of Commerce Mohammad Hamsho to Abu Dhabi, and the return to the agenda of the political discourse of the issue of resuming Syria’s membership in the Arab League, which was suspended in 2011. Kuwait, for one, openly supported the latter. 

However, according to numerous sources, in the past month Washington exerted serious pressure on the Gulf monarchies, primarily the UAE, both directly and indirectly via Saudi Arabia in order to slow down rapprochement with Damascus. US executive bodies used both formal and informal channels, and US lawmakers also played a big role in this. The submission to Congress of the bills envisaging tough financial sanctions for participation in Syria’s recovery had the effect of a cold shower on the US partners in the Persian Gulf. 

It appears the US campaign produced results. Foreign Minister of Qatar Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani did not notice any “changes on the ground” that would prompt the discussion of the issue of Syria’s return to the Arab League. Speaking at the news conference on the results of the first day of the Russian delegation’s visit, Lavrov’s Saudi counterpart Adel Al-Jubeir announced his country’s refusal to allocate funds for Syria’s recovery, resume the work of the embassy closed in 2012 and discuss Syria’s reinstatement in the Arab League. His statement left no room for doubt, either. 

Two days later, during the news conference on the results of the visit to Kuwait, Lavrov tried to emphasize the similarity of the Russian and Saudi positions on the importance of sending humanitarian aid to Syria and helping it to create conditions for the return of refugees. However, this will hardly offset the effect of the Saudi Foreign Minister’s statement, which was broadly covered by the world media. 

The reserved position of the UAE became indicative as well. Speaking at the news conference, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan openly stated the interest in strengthening the Arab countries’ position in Syria in order to counter the “unacceptable” expansion of Turkey and Syria and Syria’s reintegration in the Arab World. However, he avoided answering a direct question about the resumption of its Arab League membership. 

Thus, the US demonstrated its readiness and ability to obstruct mutual relations with the Bashar al-Assad government and Syria’s recovery both directly and indirectly, through pressure on the Persian Gulf countries, which have far greater resources for Syria’s restoration than Russia or Iran, the countries that are friendly with the Damascus authorities. Regrettably, the American factor will remain a bigger influence on the state of affairs in this issue than Moscow’s broadened bilateral cooperation with Riyadh or Abu Dhabi. Neither new investment contracts, nor the expansion of trade or the points of contact on other regional problems will compel the Gulf monarchies and companies to forget about the risks of getting onto the US sanctions lists. 

It is impossible to prevent the adoption by the US of new extra-territorial sanctions, which will further destabilize Syria. Nor is it possible to make the Gulf companies immune to restrictive measures by the country that is the backbone of the global financial system. However, there are no grounds to hope that common sense and attention to the humanitarian aspect of Syria’s recovery will prevail in Washington; nor is there reason to consider the situation a stalemate. Maybe the wind of change from the Gulf is losing its power but this will only increase the speed of the ship of Russian diplomacy, for which the Syrian azimuth is one of the key landmarks.

The results of Lavrov’s tour show Moscow the need to step up contacts with all Syrian forces in order to launch the political settlement process. His meeting with Head of the Syrian High Negotiations Committee (HNC) Nasr al-Hariri in Saudi Arabia is indicative and timely in this respect. Progress on this path may compel the Persian Gulf countries to assess the dividends and risks of becoming involved in Syria’s recovery (including the use of the mechanism of joint ventures to develop the idea voiced by Hamsho in Abu Dhabi). 

Incidentally, this meticulous and labor-intensive work should not conceal the fact that at present Syria is in a unique situation as regards the history of the recovery of states affected by armed conflicts in the Middle East. Russian companies do not need to compete for contracts with their Western or Arab counterparts. Under the circumstances, Moscow should derive the utmost economic benefits despite all real and imaginary restrictions and difficulties. 

However, mercantile interests, legitimate as they are, should not overshadow the imperative of meeting urgent humanitarian needs and creating the conditions for the return of millions of refugees and internally displaced persons by cooperating both with the Syrian government and, hypothetically, in a multilateral format. There is every reason to believe that the Russian government will pursue this policy regardless of the source, strength or direction of the wind of change blowing in the Middle East.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.