August 17, 2011 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 725

Gulf and Arab States Break Silence over Syria Crisis

August 17, 2011 | By Y. Yehoshua*
Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 725


The Arab countries recently broke their silence over the events in Syria with a series of official announcements and moves. First came a cascade of statements from the Gulf states, which called upon the Syrian regime to stop employing its "war machine" against defenseless civilians, and to meet the demands of the Syrian people by enacting serious reforms. These statements triggered similar announcements by Arab states and officials outside the Gulf.

The Gulf states' call for an immediate change in Syrian policy, which ended five months of Arab indifference to the situation there, were seen as "a turning point in the official Arab stance."[1] Until now, the Gulf states and other Arab countries – which are themselves undemocratic and intolerant of dissent, and which supported the suppression of the uprising in Bahrain – have refrained from expressing solidarity with the protestors in Syria. This, both out of their support for Assad's regime and out of fear that a successful uprising in Syria may spill over to other countries and undermine their own stability.

Apparently, it was the shifting climate in the Arab and non-Arab world that forced these countries to change their tone. The Arab public, witnessing the escalating bloodshed that is continuing even during the holy month of Ramadan, and hearing the protestors' pleas for Arab solidarity and support, began to wonder at its leaders' silence. This was evident in statements by various sheikhs, especially in the Gulf, who began to voice solidarity with the protesters in defiance of their countries' official stance. The condemnations in the non-Arab world, especially by Syria's former allies, Turkey and Russia, as well as by the UN Security Council, compelled the Arab leaders to fall in line.

The first to condemn Assad's policies were the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), starting with Qatar. The Qatari Al-Jazeera channel reported widely on the Syrian protests from the very beginning, which caused tension between the two countries, and even prompted an attack on the Qatari embassy in Damascus that led to the withdrawal of the Qatari ambassador. In a statement issued August 3, 2011, a few hours before the Security Council's condemnation of Syria, the Qatari government called upon the Syrian regime to stop the bloodshed and comply with the demands of the Syrian people. This prompted other, similar statements in the Gulf, including by the Kuwaiti government and by the GCC itself, as well as the "historic" statement by Saudi Arabia's King 'Abdallah. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain also emulated Qatar in recalling their ambassadors from Syria.

The statements issuing from the Gulf prodded other Arab states out of their silence. Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Al-'Arabi issued his first official statement on the Syrian crisis, albeit a relatively pro-Syrian one that equated the victims from among the protestors with the fatalities among the Syrian armed forces. Post-revolution Egypt spoke out as well: its foreign minister and the sheikh of Al-Azhar called to stop the killing and meet the protesters' demands. Calls for restraint in dealing with the demonstrators were heard even from figures known as allies of Syria, such as Iraqi Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi and Hizbullah Deputy Secretary-General Na'im Qassem. Even in Iran, articles were published calling on the Syrian regime to rethink its handling of the protests.

The Gulf statements were regarded there as reflecting not merely the GCC position, but a united Arab stance, and the Arab statements that echoed them were presented as proof of this. This position is in line with the Gulf states' ambition to transform the GCC into a new joint Arab body that will lead the region instead of the Arab League, whose position is gradually eroding.

It should be noted that, despite their recent condemnations of the Syrian regime, the Arab states uniformly emphasize that they are opposed to international intervention in Syria and are not demanding the ouster of Assad's regime. King 'Abdallah issued his forceful statement against Syria only after he failed in his efforts to save it from an international campaign by persuading it to change its policies. The Gulf states' opposition to intervention in Syria stems both from their support of the Syrian regime and from their fear that an escalation there may affect the stability of the entire region.

Gulf States Condemn Syrian Regime

The first of the Arab countries to break its silence over the events in Syria was Qatar. For some time, relations between the two countries have been tense, primarily over the coverage of the protests in Syria by the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera TV. In mid July 2011, Qatar closed its embassy in Damascus and recalled its ambassador after the embassy was attacked by pro-Assad youth protesting Al-Jazeera's "unprofessional and nonobjective" campaign against the Syrian regime.[2] Later that month, Qatar also hosted a conference of Syrian oppositionists in Doha, much to the resentment of Assad's regime.[3]

Assad as Hitler

(Qatar), August 7, 2011[4]

In an official announcement issued August 3, the Qatari government expressed "sorrow over the death of innocent civilians" and called on in Syria "to work toward stopping the bloodshed, cease the use of force, and make haste to implement reforms that will meet the legitimate demands of the Syrian people and ensure Syria's safety, stability, and national unity."[5]

An August 5 editorial in the Qatari daily Al-Bayan, titled "Qatar Breaks Its Silence," listed Qatar's demands of the Syrian regime: "Syria now needs to completely drop the military option; withdraw its tanks, army regiments, and security forces from the Syrian cities and villages; immediately release all political prisoners and [all] those arrested in the recent events; and hold those involved in murdering the Syrian people accountable – by way of building trust between the regime and the opposition. After all, any talk of reforms or [new] laws is meaningless as long as the blood is still flowing in the streets of Syria's cities."[6]

The day following Qatar's statement, the Kuwaiti foreign ministry issued a similar statement expressing "pain over the continued bloodshed among the Syrian people" and calling for "dialogue and a political solution rather than a military one," as well as for "the implementation of real reforms that meet the legitimate demands of the Syrian people."[7]

On August 6, the GCC issued a first official condemnation of the events in Syria, calling for an immediate end to the bloodshed and for the implementation of serious reforms. The statement said that the GCC member states were apprehensively following the deteriorating situation and the use of excessive force against protestors in Syria.[8]

The next day, on August 7, Saudi King 'Abdallah bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz addressed the events in Syria, saying: "What is happening in Syria is unacceptable to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The events are greater than can be justified by reason. However, the Syrian leadership can still enact swift and comprehensive reforms. Syria's future lies between only two options: either it chooses wisdom willingly, or drifts into the depths of turmoil and loss, God forbid." The king also said that Saudi Arabia "demands an end to the killing machine and bloodshed, and asks for reason to prevail before it is too late. Syria should issue and enact real reforms that are not merely promises, [so] that our brothers in Syria can feel [that they are living] in dignity, glory, and pride."[9]

King 'Abdallah's statements were described in the Saudi press as "a historic declaration" representing a change in Saudi policy vis-à-vis the Assad regime. Until now, the Saudi king upheld his country's diplomatic alliance with the Syrian regime, which he renewed in 2009, apparently in hopes of prizing Syria away from the Iranian camp and into the Arab camp. In fact, at the outbreak of the riots in Syria, Saudi Arabia, like the other Gulf states, expressed support for the Syrian regime in the face of "the plot to harm its security and stability."[10]

The Gulf states, which are themselves non-democratic and fear uprisings in their own territory, likewise kept silent over the suppression of the Syrian protests, justifying their stance by stating that it is not their policy to interfere in the affairs of other countries. Syria, in return, refrained from criticizing the deployment of Saudi troops in Bahrain in order to suppress protests there. The Gulf states' support of the Syrian regime also took the form of economic aid. Saudi Arabia recently loaned the Syrian government 375 million riyals,[11] while the Kuwaiti government pledged a loan of 30 million dinars.[12]

However, the Saudi king's reserved stance was not the only position voiced in the kingdom. Various Saudi elements, primarily religious figures, expressed open support for the Syrian protestors and decried the shelling of mosques by the Syrian regime. For instance, senior cleric Sheikh Saleh Al-Luhaidan called for jihad against the Syrian regime,[13] while the Syrian-born Sheikh 'Adnan Al-'Ar'our used his daily program, aired on Saudi Wesal TV, to call for the overthrow of Assad's regime. Kuwaitis, too, primarily Salafi MPs, harshly opposed Kuwait's support of the Syrian regime, and criticized the foreign ministry's statement against the Syrian regime as insufficiently forceful.[14]

Following the wave of condemnations from the Gulf states, the Gulf press began to intensely address the situation in Syria. Having previously remained largely silent over the crisis there, it now devoted numerous editorials to it, bearing headlines such as "Arabs Finally Break their Silence,"[15] "Gulf States Rushing to Aid of Syrian People,"[16] and "The Syrian Regime's Last Chance."[17] The articles praised the Gulf states' announcements and repeated the call to end to the bloodshed and enact real reforms.

Notwithstanding the significance of these official announcements, especially that of the GCC, it is important to note that these countries – other than Qatar, whose relations with Syria have long been strained – changed their tone only following statements by the UN Security Council and by Russia and Turkey. The Security Council issued a presidential statement condemning Syria on August 3, which French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé termed "a turning point in the attitude of the international community." On August 4, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev exhorted the Assad regime to enact immediate reforms and reach an agreement with the opposition, cautioning that if it did not, it would "face a sad fate" and that Russia would be forced "to reach a decision in the matter." Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan warned on August 6 that his country's patience with the Syrian regime was running out.

Cartoon in Saudi Daily: Syrian Regime 'Continues with Reforms'

(Saudi Arabia), August 10, 2011

Arab World Breaks Its Silence over Syria Events; Arab League Secretary-General Takes Lenient Stance vis-à-vis Syrian Regime

Following the condemnations of the Gulf states and especially that of the GCC, the Arab world also broke its silence over the situation in Syria, with announcements and declarations by Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Al-'Arabi and other senior figures.

Al-Arabi's statement, issued one day after the GCC's, took a relatively sympathetic view toward the Syrian regime, equating the killing of Syrian citizens with that of military personnel. Al-'Arabi called on the Syrian authorities "to immediately do what is necessary to put a stop to the violent operations and military attacks, in order to preserve the national unity of the Syrian people, prevent the killing of civilians and military personnel, and ward off biased foreign intervention." He also noted that the Arab League was prepared to help Syria "out of the fateful crisis it is facing" and that comprehensive national dialogue was the only solution to this crisis that would ensure the peaceful restoration of stability in the country.[18]

The conciliatory tone of Al-'Arabi's statements is in line with the pro-Syrian stance he has taken in recent months, both in his capacity as Egypt's foreign minister and later in his capacity as Arab League secretary-general. In the former capacity, Al-'Arabi said that Egypt was working to prevent the Western countries from taking a harsh stance against Syria in the Security Council.[19] He even visited Syria on July 13 and met with President Assad. During the visit, he criticized statements by U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the effect that Assad had lost the legitimacy to rule, saying that no one had the right to judge the legitimacy of a president other than the people who had chosen him. Al-'Arabi even stressed that the Arab League had not been pressured to take a resolution regarding Syria similar to the one it took regarding Libya.[20]

Egypt too, which prides itself on its revolution that overthrew the oppressive Mubarak regime, broke its silence only after the GCC did so. Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammad Kamel 'Amr said that reforms soaked in the blood of the martyrs would be of no avail, and that what was needed was an immediate end to the gunfire. He called for the implementation of internal reforms in order to avoid the danger of unwanted international interference.[21] Al-Azhar Sheikh Dr. Ahmad Al-Tayyeb voiced his support for the Syrian protestors as well, saying: "Al-Azhar has long been patient and avoided speaking about the situation in Syria due to the sensitive nature of this matter... but the Syrian people has the right for Al-Azhar to declare that the situation has gone too far and that this Arab and Islamic tragedy must be stopped." He added, "From the perspective of religious law, it is forbidden to keep silent over this human tragedy."[22]

The Egyptian press likewise addressed the situation in Syria, following months of silence on this matter and a preoccupation with Egypt's own domestic affairs. An editorial in the daily Al-Ahram called on Syria's president "to embrace his people, release the prisoners, enact fundamental political reforms, meet the demands of the people for liberty, democracy, and social justice, and dismantle the oppressive police state." It warned: "If Bashar does not do so, the Syrians will have the right to accuse him of working toward destroying the land, internationalizing the Syrian issue, and necessitating international intervention in his country."[23]

Calls for dialogue and an end to violence were also heard from those considered allies of the Syrian regime. Osama Al-Nujaifi, speaker of the parliament of Iraq, which has supported the Assad regime politically as well as economically, condemned the repression of freedoms in Syria and urged the Syrian government stop the bloodshed.[24] Even Hizbullah's deputy secretary-general, Sheikh Na'im Qassem, called on Syria to resolve its crisis by engaging the opposition and all strata of society in dialogue, enacting reforms, desisting from violence and the use of arms, and opposing outside intervention.[25] Criticism was also heard from media outlets associated with the moderate-conservative stream in Iran.[26]

The Condemnation of Syria – A First Move by the New GCC

The GCC condemnation of the Syrian regime, which prompted the cascade of Arab condemnations, is the GCC's first successful step as part of its bid to take a leading role in the Arab world and replace the Arab League, whose status is declining. In the recent months, the GCC has been working to incorporate two non-Gulf countries, Jordan and Morocco, in order to form a bloc of moderate Sunni countries in opposition to Shi'ite Iran; strengthen the monarchic regimes against the possibility of popular uprisings; and position itself as an alternative to the Arab League.[27]

Against this backdrop, the Gulf press attributed much importance to the GCC statement against Syria, presenting it as the unified position of all the Arabs, not just of the Gulf states. The Kuwaiti daily Al-Qabas wrote: "There is no other official Arab stance except the one [expressed by] the Gulf, because the other Arab countries are in the throes of revolutions, some of which have already succeeded and some of which are about to succeed. Hence, the position of the Gulf has recently become synonymous with the Arab position, and this new situation no doubt lends extra weight to the positions of the GCC."[28]

Dialogue, Not Foreign Intervention

It must be stressed that, despite their condemnations – which could be taken to imply consent to international action against this country, or at least the withdrawal of the Arab support from this regime – the Gulf states oppose international intervention in the Syrian crisis. As a matter of fact, their calls to Assad to change his policies are an attempt to stave off such intervention. An article in the Qatari daily Al-Raya emphasized: "We are against internationalizing [the crisis], though we are also against the killing of the defenseless Syrian people."[29] An editorial in the Qatari daily Al-Sharq said, in a similar vein: "The Arab regimes and peoples adhere to [their support of] Syria's sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity... and oppose foreign intervention in the Syrian [issue]. However, the Syrians must hurry, before it is too late, and resolve the crisis... by means of dialogue between the sides..."[30]

The Saudi press stressed that the Gulf condemnations were issued after contacts between Riyadh and Damascus to end the crisis failed, and that they were prompted by an apprehension that conditions were ripening for international intervention.[31] According to the website Elaph, Saudi Arabia suggested to form a Syrian reconciliation committee, comprising representatives of the government and the opposition, which would formulate an agreement, similar to the Lebanese Taif Agreement, leading to security and stability in the country. The website stated that Assad had preferred to reject the Saudi efforts, obey the directives of Iran and Hizbullah and continue the oppression. Assad, it said, promised the Saudi king to calm the situation in his country, but failed to do so. When Saudi Arabia understood that the likelihood of international intervention was growing, it initiated intensive contacts with Turkey in order to prevent this. The two countries decided to issue an "urgent warning to the Syrian regime to change its policies."[32] Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi described the statement of the Saudi king as "an attempt to save the situation" before international measures are taken.[33]

Fear of Sectarian Conflict that Could Destabilize the Region

The Arab countries evidently fear that an escalation in Syria, whether as a result of international intervention or in the absence of such intervention, may destabilize not only Syria but the region as a whole. The scenario feared is one of a violent sectarian conflict between the Shi'ite camp, led by Iran, and the Sunni camp, led by Saudi Arabia, as happened in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Some writers and figures evoked sectarian terms in discussing the crisis. The Gulf press condemned Syria's reliance on Shi'ite forces, such as the Iraqi government, Iran and Hizbullah, and claimed that "Iran fears that the loss of its ally [Syria] may demolish its dreams of a Persian empire."[34] Writers also accused Syria of employing Iran-like methods of threatening to activate "sleeper-cells in the Gulf states."[35] As evidence, they cited statements made by Syrian army officer Sharif Shehada, considered to be a spokesman of the regime, on Al-Arabiya. He said: "Despite Syria's support of the Gulf states, there is sectarian incitement against it. We could assist the Shi'ites in Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf states [in fighting their Sunni regimes]... but we do not do this."[36] Some of the sheikhs who supported the Syrian uprising stressed that the regime there is not really Sunni but Shi'ite. For example, Saudi sheikh Saleh Al-Luhaidan called for jihad to overthrow the "Shi'ite" Syrian president, "even if a third of the Syrian people have to die for this."[37]

Articles in the Arab press addressed the scenario of a sectarian conflict. 'Abd Al-Bari 'Atwan wrote: "As we follow the changes in Syria and the region, we realize that we are about to see the formation and mobilization of two sectarian axes, and that this could develop into a broad regional war fermented by the Gulf [states] and acted out by Arab and Muslim players. This [could happen] if [the Syrian] regime does not recognize the danger of the path it is taking and [start] handling affairs [more] wisely..." 'Atwan wrote further: "We fear that things may develop into a sectarian civil war, especially since some forces, both inside and outside Syria, are fiercely encouraging this. If this war breaks out, it will burn not only Syria but the entire region. Will the Syrian authorities wake up and stop the massacre, so as to prevent this scenario before it happens?..."[38]

Former Jordanian information minister Taher Al-'Adwan wrote in the Jordanian daily Al-'Arab Al-Yawm: "Ankara is unlikely to opt for a military strike against Syria, though it has prepared the political and regional ground for [creating] an Arab-Turkish-international alliance against Damascus. If the [Syrian] regime insists on continuing its internecine war [against the protesters], this could lead to a region-wide conflict. This, because Iran and leading forces in Iraq, as well as Hizbullah, will act to support Assad's regime, and will regard the fall of this regime as an intolerable strategic defeat."[39]

However, it seems that both the leader of the Shi'ite camp, namely Iran, and the leader of the Sunni camp, Saudi Arabia, still prefer to save Assad's regime. For Iran, this regime is a vital ally, while Saudi Arabia regards it as the "devil it knows" and with which it can reach understandings on mutual interests. Hence, neither country is intent on launching a sectarian campaign, with actions or words, like the one launched in previous and ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain. However, if international intervention in Syria occurs, such a conflict may indeed arise.

*Y. Yehoshua is Director of Research at MEMRI.


[1] Al-Iqtisadiyya (Saudi Arabia), August 9, 2011.

[2] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 19, 2011.

[3] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 31, 2011. The convention was criticized in a July 31, 2011 report in the Syrian daily Al-Watan.

[4] Similarly, an August 8 article in the London-based daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, by Saudi journalist Hussein Al-Shubakshi, compared Assad's regime to that of Hitler and other tyrants.

[5] Qatar News Agency (Qatar), August 3, 2011.

[6] Al-Bayan (Qatar), August 5, 2011.

[7] Al-Jarida (Kuwait), August 4, 2011.

[8], August 6, 2011.

[9], August 8, 2011.

[10], March 27, 2011.

[11] Al-Watan (Syria), July 23, 2011.

[12] This move met with harsh censure from Kuwaiti MP 'Ali Al-'Amir, who criticized the Kuwaiti government for aiding a regime that is killing its own people. Al-Watan (Kuwait), July 15, 2011.

[14] See, for instance, Muhammad Haif's statements. Al-Watan (Kuwait), August 5, 2011.

[15] Al-Raya (Qatar), August 8, 2011.

[16] Al-Sharq (Qatar), August 7, 2011.

[17] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), August 7, 2011.

[18] Al-Hayat (London), August 8, 2011.

[19] Al-Akhbar (Egypt), June 6, 2011; Al-Hayat (London), June 12, 2011.

[20] Al-Ahram (Egypt), July 13, 2011.

[21] Al-Dustour (Egypt), August 9, 2011.

[22] Al-Yawm Al-Sab'a (Egypt), August 8, 2011.

[23] Al-Ahram (Egypt), August 8, 2011.

[24] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 10, 2011.

[25] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), IRNA (Iran), August 10, 2011.

[26] In an August 7 article, the Iranian daily Ebtekar called on the Iranian regime to reconsider its policy vis-à-vis Syria in light of the severity of the crisis there, and warned that Iran was likely to pay a price if it did not follow the example of Russia and Turkey, and tarried in changing its position on the protest in Syria. On August 8, the website Asr-e Iran warned that Assad using violence against the protestors would undermine his role as Syria's leader and lead to foreign intervention in the form of flight restrictions and security zones within Syria.

[27] On the bid to incorporate Jordan and Morocco into the GCC, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 696, "Addition of Jordan and Morocco to Gulf Cooperation Council – A New Sunni Arab Alignment Against Iran," June 15, 2011, Addition of Jordan and Morocco to Gulf Cooperation Council – A New Sunni Arab Alignment Against Iran.

[28] Al-Qabas (Kuwait), August 8, 2011. According to an editorial in the Qatari daily Al-Sharq, the GCC statement highlights the fact that the Gulf states are "an integral part of the Arab world and take an interest in all the developments in the various Arab countries, from the [Atlantic] sea to the Gulf." Al-Sharq (Qatar), August 7, 2011.

[29] Al-Raya (Qatar), August 13, 2011.

[30] Al-Sharq (Qatar), August 5, 2011.

[31] An editorial in the Saudi daily Al-Watan said: "The tone of the [king's] statement means that it was preceded by political contacts which reached a dead end because the Syrian regime insisted on taking a path leading to a crisis. This prompted the [Saudi] government to take a clear stance that placed the interests of Syria – its regime and its people – before political considerations... The Syrian regime still has a chance [to save itself]..." Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), August 8, 2011. Jordanian writer Saleh Al-Qallab said that the GCC statement was preceded by "steady contacts" between Riyadh and Damascus in attempt to persuade Assad to change his policies. Al-Rai (Jordan), August 8, 2011.

[32], August 9, 2011.

[33], August 8, 2011. 'Abd Al-Bari 'Atwan, editor of Al-Quds Al-Arabi, wrote: "Without a doubt, something is secretly being cooked up [against the Syrian regime], and this is what prompted the Gulf states to suddenly issues their statement." Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), August 8, 2011.

[34] See article by Yousef Al-Kuwailit in the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh, August 11, 2011.

[35] See article by Hussein Shubakshi in the daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, May 4, 2011.

[37], April 22, 2011.

[38] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), August 8, 2011.

[39] Al-'Arab Al-Yawm (Jordan), August 8, 2011.

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