Admitting Mistakes

The Gulf states know they got it wrong in Syria. But how will they put things right?

By Abdel Bari Atwan

The surprise admission by UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash that “it was a mistake to kick Syria out of the Arab League” back in 2013 was a politically significant step – a small critical probe into the policies of intervention in Syrian affairs which the Gulf states continued pursuing, at US and Western instigation, for more than seven years.

It therefore raises the question of whether this apparently bold admission will be followed by actual changes of policy towards the Syrian crisis, whether by the UAE or by other Gulf states that made the same mistake, in one way or another, and which intervened militarily in the crisis and spent billions of dollars on inflaming it.

It is true that the UAE, unlike other Gulf countries, did not itself fund militias and armed factions in Syria, and that it maintained relations with the country. But it was an integral part of a Gulf grouping that signed up to a US, European and Turkish scheme whose principal goal was to change the current Syrian regime by all ways and means, more military than political.

In his lengthy interview with The National, the English-language paper issued by his government in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, Gargash confined his identification of this mistake and its consequences to the fact that by expelling Syria, the Arab League and the Gulf grouping that currently dominates it deprived themselves of influence. “It meant we had no political leverage at all, no open channel, we could not present an Arab prism to how the Syrian issue should be resolved,” he explained.

This is true and logical. But it is secondary and over-simplified. The issue goes much further than that. The context in which Syria was “kicked out” of the Arab League was one of excessive confidence at the time, based on a misreading of Syrian and international realities, that the Syrian regime would fall within a few weeks or months. This did not happen, for reasons that have become well known and which there is no longer any use in re-explaining. Perhaps if the outcome on the ground in Syria had been different this admission would not have been forthcoming, and the mistake would have been deemed the right thing to do.

If only it had been merely a matter of expelling Syria or suspending its membership of the Arab League. What actually happened was far more serious: an attempt to give Syria’s seat to an opposition grouping, legitimise military intervention in the country to bring down the regime, and assume an active role in the US-led Friends of Syria group alongside – what an irony – the Turkish authorities and the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

This Emirati step comes around two weeks after President Bashar al-Asad’s revelation, made in a meting with Syrian journalists, that there had been an improvement in Syria’s relations with Qatar. This has been clearly reflected in the coverage of Qatar’s Al Jazeera channel. The tone of its reporting and commentary has changed, it broadcasts Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s speeches live, and Asad has all at once gone from being ‘regime president’ to ‘Syrian president’. 

Prior to this, Saudi Arabia indicated a change of approach by suspending the work of its client opposition group the Riyadh-based Higher Negotiations Committee, and US President Donald Trump complained that his country had wasted tens of billions of dollars in Syria and gained nothing in return.

The question that now arises is how will this admission be translated into practical steps – meaning how will the mistake be corrected? By bringing Syria back into the Arab League? But would the Syrian government agree to re-join an organisation which expelled it and conspired to overthrow it, or stay out and thereby strip it of its legitimacy? Or might recompense be made in the form of active and substantial participation in the forthcoming battle to rebuild Syria?

But the most important question of all in our view is this:  What are the other mistakes which Gargash and his colleagues in the Gulf Cooperation Council will admit? The ongoing war on Yemen? The imminent one against Iran? The behind-the-scenes bid to normalize with the Israeli occupation state? 

We await replies, even if they are a long time coming.