Institute for the Study of Asymmetric Conflict

Assad's Success Could Lead to Alliance With Gulf States

Micah Levinson

Note: This article was published in the International Business Times on April 19.

Will the Assad regime's suppression of its own version of the "Arab Spring" transform Syria into an unwavering ally of Iran and spell long-term hostility between Damascus and the Gulf Arab states now financing the Syrian rebels, as many now seem to believe? Not likely. Alliances in the Middle East are always in flux, and the Syrian case is no different. In fact, the Gulf States could find significant opportunity within their current adversity with Damascus.
The historical record is telling. Since 1970, Damascus has either fought a war or been on the brink of war with every one of its neighbors and, at one point or another, suffered poor relations with almost every other country in the region. Yet, Syria enjoyed positive working relations, if not an outright alliance, with almost every country in the Middle East at one time or another over the same period.

Take Syria's rocky relationship with Jordan. In September 1970, Syria unsuccessfully invaded Jordan to assist PLO forces seeking to depose King Hussein. Yet, just six years later, Jordan became the only Arab country to endorse Syria's invasion of Lebanon to rescue Christian Maronite forces besieged by, among others, the PLO. While in 1978-79 Syria and Iraq commenced negotiations aimed at unification, Damascus assisted Iran in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War and deployed 247,000 troops and over 800 tanks along the Jordanian border to punish Amman for backing the Iraqi war effort. Jordan allegedly retaliated by aiding the Muslim Brotherhood-led insurgency raging in Syria in the early 1980s. Syrian- Jordanian relations improved in the early 2000s, only to implode in the wake of the "Arab Spring," as Jordan's King Abdullah became the first Arab leader to call on President Bashar al-Assad to resign.

Syrian-Turkish relations have proven equally mercurial. In 1998, Ankara threatened to invade Syria unless it terminated support for the PKK, a Kurdish insurgent group in Turkey, and deport its leader, Abdullah Ocalan. Damascus complied and Syrian-Turkish relations so improved that by 2009 the countries had lifted mutual visa requirements, established the Syrian-Turkish High Cooperation Council to enhance economic and military cooperation, and held large joint military exercises. That amity, however, has evaporated amid the current Syrian uprising, with Turkey hosting the Syrian National Council, the Syrian opposition's de facto government in exile, and members of the Free Syrian Army, another opposition group.

Syria's traditionally capricious relations with the Gulf States have also soured as of late, as many Gulf States relish the prospect of a regime aligned with their Iranian adversary collapsing. However, these same nations were initially reticent to embrace the Syrian uprising because Damascus has grown adept at convincing regional players that their interests would suffer if the Assad regime were overthrown. Indeed, although Syria serves as a critical conduit for Iran in supplying its terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, and at times represents Iran in Arab fora, Assad also has actively courted the Gulf States. Despite Iranian opposition, for example, Syria endorsed the Saudi-authored Arab Peace Initiative, a plan for the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict presented at the 2002 Arab League Summit. Then, last spring, over the fierce objections of both Iran and Hezbollah, Syria approved of Gulf Cooperation Council intervention to suppress the "Arab Spring" demonstrations in Bahrain.

Syria's recent history, in other words, is littered with clashes and reconciliations with neighbors whenever alliances shifted in the Middle East. If Assad succeeds in quashing the current uprising, it is unlikely that he and the Gulf States will remain at an arm's length for long.

Indeed, the contours of a new Damascus -- Gulf alliance may already be emerging. The Police Chief of Dubai, Lieutenant General Dahi Khalfan, recently accused the Muslim Brotherhood of plotting to take over the Gulf States, reflecting the abiding fear shared by the Gulf monarchies that gains by the anti-monarchist Muslim Brotherhood as a result of the "Arab Spring" could prove their undoing. It is a fear shared by the Syrian regime, which faces a rebellion led in part by members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

Should the Assad regime persevere, which looks increasingly likely, this mutual antipathy could serve as the basis for a future alliance -- or at least cooperation between Syria and the Gulf States. If it does, it would be a curious wrinkle indeed that, a year into the "Arab Spring," one of its most prominent products would be the emergence of a Syrian-Gulf axis against Islamism.

Micah Levinson is a Junior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.