Can Arab Gulf States Neutralize Iranian Influence in Syria?

As a result of the Syrian regime “winning” the civil war, Arab Gulf states have generally adapted to new strategies that accept president Bashar al-Assad and his circle staying in power. Rather than aiming to topple the Ba’athist regime in Damascus, monarchies of the Persian Gulf are shifting their focus toward engagement with Assad in order to decrease Iran’s influence in post-conflict Syria and bring the Arab country into greater alignment with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, and other Sunni Arab states.
Can Arab Gulf States Neutralize Iranian Influence in Syria
Image by: Abdelillah Arahal/Inside Arabia

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain re-normalized their relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime late last year.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain re-normalized their relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime late last year. Most observers interpreted this development as confirmation that Arab Gulf monarchies are seeking to re-establish ties with Damascus to pull post-conflict Syria away from Iran’s geopolitical orbit and closer to the UAE and other Sunni Arab states. From Abu Dhabi’s perspective, the problem with Assad’s government is not Assad himself, or even his regime per se, but instead its relationship with Iran. Thus, as the leaders of the UAE and Bahrain see it, Assad staying in power would pose no threat to the region so long as his government parts ways with the Islamic Republic.

Nonetheless, Assad has made no indication that his government is even considering the idea of breaking the historic Damascus-Tehran alliance. To the contrary, his meeting with Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran in February, which was his first visit to a foreign country other than Russia since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, underscored the extent to which Syria’s leadership is indebted to Tehran.

Furthermore, regime officials in Damascus stress that Iranian military forces and Iranian-backed Shi’a militias are operating on Syrian soil because of the Syrian government’s official invitation. Therefore, it is, at best, highly unlikely that the Emiratis and Bahrainis will have much luck in terms of pushing back against Iranian influence in the war-torn country.

Moreover, it is worth asking if Damascus could even eject Iran’s hand from Syria if it would ever intend to do so. To answer this question, it is necessary to take stock of the extent to which Syria is far less of an equal partner with Iran compared to the years that followed Iran’s Islamic Revolution while Hafez al-Assad was the Syrian president (1979-2000). While the current president’s father was head of state, Syria’s foreign policy capitalized on its alliances with the Soviet Union and the Islamic Republic in order to resist the U.S.-led order, particularly with Israel, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq surrounding Syria.

Yet Hafez managed to keep Moscow and Tehran at arm’s length at times when Damascus feared Soviet/Iranian encroachment on Syria’s autonomy as an independent Arab state that was also keen to maintain cooperative ties with the conservative, Western-allied Arab Gulf monarchies. Arguably, during Bashar’s years as president prior to the Arab Spring (2000-2011), his regime maintained much of its autonomy from Tehran that it had during Hafez’s presidency. But the past eight years of civil war in Syria have fundamentally changed the Damascus-Tehran alliance, resulting in Iran becoming the senior partner in the relationship.

Iran’s Hand in Syria’s Future

Post-conflict Syria’s political and social dynamics will inevitably be drastically different from those that defined the country in the pre-Arab Spring era. Syria will not return to what it was before 2011 and a major reason why has to do with the extent to which the Iranians have heavily consolidated their influence in the country. Put simply, Tehran has integrated its forces and proxies into Syria’s (in)security architecture where there is a newly defined power equilibrium.

Although the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) has retaken virtually all land that Assad’s forces previously lost to the Islamic State and Sunni rebels, such on-the-ground gains were heavily attributable to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), as well as a host of Tehran-sponsored militias made up of Afghan, Lebanese, Iraqi, and Pakistani Shi’a fighters, which seriously frighten the Sunni-led Arab Gulf monarchies. However, if Abu Dhabi, Manama, and Riyadh’s wishes were to come true and such Shi’a forces exited Syria, it is questionable whether Syria’s regime would be able to further consolidate its gains achieved in recent years. Consequently, Assad knows that his room to maneuver vis-à-vis Tehran is extremely limited. He simply owes Iran too much as a result of all the blood and money that the Islamic Republic has invested in his regime’s survival.

Iran’s entrenchment in the Syrian economy and the billions in aid that Tehran has given Damascus since 2011 also make it increasingly difficult to imagine the ejection of Iranian influence from the war-torn country.

Additionally, Iran’s entrenchment in the Syrian economy and the billions in aid that Tehran has given Damascus since 2011 also make it increasingly difficult to imagine the ejection of Iranian influence from the war-torn country. Moreover, Iran’s interests in exploiting Syria’s natural resource wealth will give Tehran even further incentive to fight to maintain its influence over Damascus. All signs indicate that the Syrian government sees closer economic cooperation with Iran as fundamental to the country’s rebuilding following eight years of war.

Last month, Damascus and Tehran signed 11 agreements and memoranda of understanding that included one deal aimed at facilitating “long term strategic economic cooperation” between Syria and Iran. Others cover a host of sectors from housing to infrastructure and investment to education. Late last year, Syria’s Minister of Economy and Foreign Trade, Mohammed Samer al-Khalil, went to Tehran to meet with Iranian officials and sign a bilateral agreement that calls for “comprehensive cooperation at the financial and banking levels” that “contributes to facilitating [Syrian-Iranian] trade” and investment, and “improving cooperation in the economic field.”

In February, Tasnim News Agency reported that Tehran province Vice Chairman of Mass-Housing Constructors Association Iraj Rahbar revealed Iran’s plans to build 200,000 housing units in Damascus. The project, expected to commence within three months, highlights how Syria’s government maintains a preference for Iranian firms in the construction sector. Rahbar also stated that the plan entails agreements for Iranian support for Syria’s agriculture and tourism industries.

A Gulf Moment for Syria?

Despite these factors, Arab Gulf states see themselves as capable of playing their cards in Syria in ways that can successfully push back against Iranian influence. The fact of the matter is that many Syrian Sunni Muslims (both within Syria and displaced outside the country) still oppose Assad and his regime which has done nothing to address the grievances which largely contributed to the eruption of Syria’s crisis in 2011.

Moreover, these segments of Syrian society that took up arms to overthrow the regime also share Arab Gulf monarchies’ opposition to the role of IRGC units and non-Syrian Shi’a jihadist forces operating in the country. Additionally, not all figures within the Assad regime are content with the state of Damascus-Tehran relations. Some of these Syrian officials want to see Damascus play a leadership role in the Arab world instead of serving as one part of an Iranian-led axis stretching from Tehran to Beirut.

Given that Syria’s allies, Russia and Iran, will be unable to facilitate major improvements in Syria’s relations with Western countries, Arab Gulf states see themselves as having the means to rehabilitate Syria’s image before European and North American governments. Yet whether the Arabian Peninsula monarchies that previously supported Assad’s enemies in the Syrian civil war can successfully convince Damascus that the path to a better global image lies through their capitals is questionable.

Doubtless, the Syrian government would welcome Arab Gulf states investing in the country’s reconstruction. But establishing deeper levels of trust will require an extended period, given that political baggage stemming from their previous opposition to Assad will remain throughout the foreseeable future. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states must also contend with the reach of Washington’s sanctions that target Syria’s government and individuals in Assad’s regime, creating major risks for Gulf-based firms considering plans for entering Syria’s opaque business environment in the post-conflict period.

There are also reasons for Arab Gulf monarchies to fear backlashes from internal elements, chiefly Sunni Islamists, if they are perceived as too embracing of Assad’s regime. Only as recently as 2017, the Sunni-ruled Arabian Peninsula sheikdoms enthusiastically supported the Trump administration’s decision to launch missiles at an SAA base near Homs after years of broadcasting Syrian regime atrocities on satellite TV for their citizens to watch and conclude that Assad is a “butcher of Sunni Muslims.” Without doubt, the decision to re-normalize ties with Syria’s government will be painful and require immense pride-swallowing.

Moreover, it is not clear that the Arabian Peninsula monarchies will be able to convince their citizens that reaccepting Assad’s legitimacy marks anything other than an Iranian victory in Syria that will heavily consolidate Tehran’s influence in Damascus. Convincing GCC nationals to accept their governments’ normalization of relations with Syria will be, at minimum, a tough sell.

Yet the UAE and other Arab states that have reconciled with the Damascus regime maintain that dealing with the government running Syria is necessary in order to influence Damascus’ position in the region. Moreover, failure to engage will make Syria “another Iraq” without doing anything to limit Iranian influence in the country.

Emirati and Bahraini perspectives on ongoing developments in Syria are heavily informed by their observations of the ways in which Iraq transformed following Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003.

Indeed, Emirati and Bahraini perspectives on ongoing developments in Syria are heavily informed by their observations of the ways in which Iraq transformed following Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003. The influx of Iranian forces and Iranian-backed Shi’a militias into Iraq, especially after the Islamic State’s meteoric rise to power in 2014, heavily changed Iraq’s political and security landscapes, creating deep rooted grievances among the country’s Sunni minority living under an authoritarian Shi’a-led, Iran-allied government in Baghdad. The violations of Iraqi Sunnis’ basic rights at the hands of radical Shi’a militias have also met emotional responses from many GCC citizens who see such crimes as confirmations of their worst fears of Iranian ascendancy in the Middle East.

To this day, many in Sunni-ruled GCC states maintain a sense of guilt for not doing more in the 2000s to help Iraq stand on its own two feet without Iran meddling in its internal affairs. “There is no way to completely prevent Iran from having influence inside Syria, but at least we can try to mitigate that influence as much as we can,” according to Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an internationally renowned Emirati political scientist. “Arab states do not want to abandon Syria like we abandoned Iraq.”

The Russian Role

It is impossible to asses Arab Gulf states’ Syria strategies without analyzing the Russian factor. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit this month to four GCC states—Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE— was about addressing multiple factors impacting Moscow’s relations with the Gulf states, including the Syrian crisis. A key purpose behind Lavrov’s latest diplomatic tour of the Arabian Peninsula was to try and push Saudi Arabia and Kuwait toward the UAE and Bahrain’s position on the Syrian regime. Although the Kremlin understands that Qatar is extremely unlikely to soon restore relations with Assad’s government, a high priority for Moscow’s Middle East foreign policy this year will be pushing more Sunni Arab states toward reconciliation with Damascus.

There is good reason for Russia’s leadership to expect support from the Gulf states vis-à-vis Syria despite the fact that much of the support that anti-Assad rebels received earlier in the conflict came from the GCC. Currently, Gulf Arab states are joining Israel in viewing Russia as the only power that has the means to realistically push back against Iranian influence in Syria. Put simply, countering Tehran in Syria requires improved relations with the Kremlin and deeper coordination between Gulf monarchies and Moscow when it comes to Syria’s reconstruction and post-war settlement.

From the perspective of officials in Abu Dhabi and other Arab Gulf capitals, Russia is attempting to resolve the Syrian conflict in a way that enables Syria to be a cohesive and strong state with effective national institutions. Yet, from this point of view, Iran is set on continuing to exploit chaos in Syria and flexing its muscles in the Levant via non-state actors that take advantage of power vacuums that Tehran will continue to use in a grander effort aimed at keeping Syria destabilized.

Moscow strongly welcomes the GCC states’ growing perception of Russia as a stabilizing force in Syria that can serve as a potential bulwark against not only Iran, but also Turkey. Doubtless, deeper economic ties with the wealthy Gulf monarchies will help the Russians circumvent Western sanctions and the GCC states’ deep pockets can heavily contribute to the reconstruction of Syria, which Russia is not financially able to bankroll. At the same time, GCC investment in Russia’s economy is another factor prompting the Kremlin to welcome the fact that GCC states are warming up to Moscow. Russia’s relations with Arab Gulf monarchies are deepening against the backdrop of GCC governments’ unease with the Trump administration’s unpredictability and lack of a cohesive strategy for Syria, giving Abu Dhabi, Manama, and Riyadh even more incentive to hedge and move closer to the Kremlin.

Nonetheless, it appears doubtful that Arabian Peninsula monarchies can successfully induce Russia’s leadership to dislodge Iran’s influence from Syria. More realistically, Moscow and Tehran will increase their security cooperation in Syria, especially as its transition toward peace and stability may take considerable time notwithstanding the regime’s efforts to project an image of Syria quickly returning to a state of “normalcy.”

Resurgent jihadist terror campaigns in Syria will provide Russia and Iran much incentive to strengthen their coordination. The odds are good that officials in Moscow will see GCC states’ growing unease with Washington as an opportunity for Russia to leverage its relationship with Iran in order to drive Arab Gulf monarchies toward making concessions to Moscow. Similarly, Tehran’s need to turn to Russia as Washington applies greater pressure on the Islamic Republic grows, giving Moscow an opportunity to pressure Iran into becoming more accommodating of the Kremlin’s Middle East agenda. Therefore, the GCC states are unlikely to be in any position to use their influence over Moscow in ways that could effectively pressure the Russians into countering Iran’s hand in Syria.

Arab Gulf states’ engagement with the Syrian regime and Moscow will likely continue as some GCC members believe that only through deeper coordination with Assad and his supporters in the Kremlin can they pursue a realistic plan for countering Iran’s conduct in Syria.

In the final analysis, Arab Gulf states’ engagement with the Syrian regime and Moscow will likely continue as some GCC members believe that only through deeper coordination with Assad and his supporters in the Kremlin can they pursue a realistic plan for countering Iran’s conduct in Syria. But as outlined above, numerous factors raise major doubts about this strategy’s potential to create a new geopolitical order in the Levant that results in Assad’s regime aligning with Arab Gulf states while distancing Damascus from Tehran. Although painful for many Syrians and GCC officials to accept, the most sober of analysts must conclude that Iran’s influence in Syria has solidified, and probably irreversibly so.