Gulf states playing a dangerous game in Syria

Published in Gulf States News, 22 June 2015 The bombing of two Shia mosques in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia on consecutive Fridays in May highlighted, yet again, the risks Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) governments face from domestic extremists linked to Islamic State and other jihadist groups. Saudi Arabia faces the biggest threat, because of its large population and sectarian tensions, but the problem is by no means confined to the kingdom. While other Gulf states find it relatively easy to keep an eye on potential troublemakers, they could still come into the firing line of militants. “It’s just a matter of time before there’s an attack on the UAE,” one Gulf-based defence analyst told GSN.

The risk is likely to continue for at least as long as the war in Syria, not least because Gulf governments have been supporting radical groups fighting against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. A recent rapprochement between Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey has led to renewed momentum among some Syrian rebel groups. But the danger is that this will translate into more and different problems down the road. “After the rapprochement between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, we saw rebel unity among the Syrian opposition and a massive push which has resulted in significant gains,” visiting research fellow at the University of Oxford Alia Brahimi said. “The agents that some Gulf countries may be supporting in this wider conflict are not long-term bedfellows for the Gulf states for obvious reasons, mainly around Sunni radicalisation. It’s a dangerous game, a delicate game.”

Among the groups that have received support from the Gulf are Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Al-Nusra, and Ahrar Al-Sham, which also has links to Al-Qaeda and has in the past fought alongside Islamic State. “In a number of cases, Gulf states started out supporting groups [in Syria] that eventually turned into something very different from what they had initially been,” Nigel Inkster at the London-based Institute for Strategic Studies said. “But by that stage it was sometimes hard to disengage.”

This is not just a Syria issue. That conflict is inextricably linked to the war in Iraq, and jihadist groups are also playing important roles in the conflicts in Libya and Yemen and in the lower level violence in Egypt. Such conflicts are being fuelled to some extent by people in the Gulf either volunteering to fight or sending money to jihadist groups – something the authorities have been unable or unwilling to stop. Western allies (who have also played a role in the rise of jihadists) have sometimes pointed the finger – most notably, US vice-president Joe Biden, who in October complained that the “biggest problem [in Syria] is our allies”. Biden was subsequently pressured into apologising to Ankara, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, but the concerns remain.

Some Gulf governments are thought to be taking advice from the US on how best to deal with the problem. The UAE security forces are undergoing regular training to deal with any attacks, and the US has personnel in the country that would be able to help respond to any incident at a moment’s notice. Concerns about ‘blowback’ are far from new, especially in Saudi Arabia, where in the past Al-Qaeda found a large pool of potential recruits. But the recent mosque bombings suggest Riyadh will need to redouble its efforts to combat it.

Ultimately, more diplomacy rather than more military action will be needed to restore order and stability around the region, but that may be a long way off. “There is this notion that the political issues can be solved militarily and through proxies, but this is fuelling a lot of the instability we are seeing in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and beyond,” Brahimi said.