What the Bombings in Syria Say About the GCC

The US and its pro-NATO Mideast allies began bombing Islamic State positions in Syria last week. This highly publicized event was significant for what it revealed about the geopolitics of the entire Mideast. Essentially, the operation saw the US working hand-in-hand with the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

MOSCOW, October 2 (RIA Novosti) – The US and its pro-NATO Mideast allies began bombing Islamic State positions in Syria last week. This highly publicized event was significant for what it revealed about the geopolitics of the entire Mideast. Essentially, the operation saw the US working hand-in-hand with the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). This in and of itself is not a surprise, but one may find insight in the details of the operation. Oman’s participation is missing, having been replaced with that of close GCC-ally, Jordan, and although Kuwait also remained on the sidelines, this could be explained by the political sensitivity of Kuwaiti warplanes flying over Iraq en route to Syria. The former case, the replacement of Oman with Jordan in the Syrian bombings, is more subject to political intrigue and deserves further examination. Also, although Qatar is a member of the GCC, it did not directly partake in the bombing runs, in a sure sign that the Qatari-Saudi rift is still a major factor in the region. Thus, by looking into the specifics of the bombings of Syria, one can gain a clearer view of the GCC’s contemporary geopolitical situation.

The GCC and the Saudi Core

The GCC is a regional integration project that aims to increase economic, political, and military interaction between its members. It is also not limited by geography, as its name would imply, since it reached out to Jordan and Morocco soliciting membership last year. In addition, it invited them into a military alliance of sorts, too. Taken into a larger perspective, the organization is clearly Saudi-led, and Riyadh uses it to expand its reach across the region. No other member has the demographics and economics to pull it off, and Saudi Arabia abuts all of the members and prospective members aside from Morocco. It offers its monarchist partners implicit security guarantees from the extremist actors (both militarized and non-militarized) that it influences in exchange for their subordination to the Saudis’ strategic vision. Importantly, Saudi Arabia also has the political will to do all of this, and it’s arguably among the US’ closest global allies. In this manner, Saudi Arabia serves as the integrational core, and given its close relationship with Washington, it can use the entire GCC as a proxy lever for American regional influence if called upon to do so.

Oman Out…

Aside from the recent Qatari-Saudi falling out (which will be addressed later), the GCC’s integration aims had been proceeding remarkably well until last year. All of the members behaved in a relatively uniform fashion, and a discussion had started in 2011 about expanding the alliance into a political one. By the end of 2013, however, during a GCC meeting on this topic and others, Oman surprised its partners by flat-out rejecting this integrationist direction. It even made the dramatic announcement that it would leave the organization if these plans continued. Taken aback, the organization focused on retaining its existing hegemony with the least amount of resistance possible; the Saudis sidelined this proposal so as not to upset Saudi-Omani ties, and it has lied dormant ever since.

Although Oman’s announcement came as a shock to the Saudis, it really shouldn’t have. Muscat has tried to present itself as a diplomatic balancer and a neutral party amidst the region’s increasingly polarized politics and identities. It has facilitated Western negotiations with Iran and even maintained positive relations with the country during the heyday of Western warmongering against it. Considering how it views its regional role, in hindsight, its decision to reject supreme Saudi hegemony (which is what political integration would likely entail) should have come as predictable. Keeping in line with the aforementioned facts, it’s little surprise that Oman did not partake in the recent bombing of Syria.

…and Jordan In

Jordan is the exact opposite of Oman with regards to its view on the GCC. Whereas Oman is hesitant, cautious, and would like to preserve as much neutrality as possible, Jordan has no reservations about deepening its integration at the quickest pace possible. The country itself could even cynically be described as a tripartite pseudo-protectorate between Israel, the US, and Saudi Arabia, in the sense that without their joint support, the government and its institutions could collapse or even be overthrown by increasing domestic strife.

Thus, given its dependency status, Jordan is influenced by the dictates of its overseers, and having a pro-Western monarch at the helm contributes to it being a political pushover. Israel, for its own reasons, does not want to integrate with Jordan and only supports it on a diplomatic and military level. Its primary goal is to make sure that it does not go against Israeli interests in the West Bank or collapse into a failed state that could endanger Israel. The Saudis, however, are different, and their seemingly endless supply of petrodollars makes them an alluring partner for any type of integration. Of course, the Kingdom has its own interests in integrating with Jordan, and these will be outlined in the next section.

The Value Behind the Jordan-Oman Switch

Oman’s refusal to bomb Syria in league with its partners shouldn’t be identified as a setback for the GCC and Saudi Arabia, since Jordan’s inclusion more than makes up for any perceived losses. Jordan is important due to its geostrategic location near Damascus and the large, mostly desert border that it shares with Syria. This places it in a prime position for any destabilization of its northern neighbor and possible projection of conventional force there.

The Saudis see value in Jordan precisely because of their offensive and expansionist ideological vision. They identify Jordan’s inclusion into their regional grouping as constituting a de-facto expansion of the Kingdom’s borders to the Syrian frontier. It is no secret that Saudi Arabia exports its firebrand and conservative interpretation of Islam all across the region, and Jordan is the perfect staging ground for expanding its influence. Of course, it was already doing this via non-state actors prior to its integrationist push with Jordan, but with Amman’s acquiescence to its regional vision, it can now go forward with projecting conventional forms of power to succeed where the unconventional ones have failed.

Boots on the Ground in Syria

President Obama has been adamant that the US will not place its own boots on the ground in Syria, but he hasn’t said anything about those of its GCC partners. In fact, the US did boast that some of its unnamed partners have committed their forces to do so, with Republican Congressman Michael McCaul revealing that Jordan is among them. Given the expertise, resilience, and battle-hardened experience of the Syrian Arab Army, it is highly doubtful that the Jordanians could succeed in a conventional regime change on their own, hence the inclusion of its new GCC allies in aiding with this mission and further explaining its importance to the Saudis.

It was disclosed in early July that the UK had sought a few years ago to train a massive 100,000-member force in Jordan and Turkey to overthrow the Syrian government. Although it was dismissed at the time, the US is now clearly making headway towards actualizing this plan. Obama has requested half a billion dollars to do just this, and the US has openly said that it will be training at least 15,000 troops for this purpose, not counting the 5,000 that the Saudis have volunteered to help with. Of course, the real numbers are likely much larger, with the US and its regional allies simply adding forces together to reach the 100,000 militants originally suggested by the British. Also, in all probability, the staging ground for this conventional invasion hasn’t changed – it still remains Jordan and Turkey. The former is ready to allow the use of its territory for an invasion at any time (with or without the 100,000 militants), with the latter negotiating for US-bestowed benefits and is set to hold a Parliamentary vote to authorize a conventional intervention in Syria and Iraq.

Qatar’s Contribution

The Qataris should not be forgotten when talking about the War in Syria. They have provided massive support to militant non-state actors since the conflict started, and they recently contributed intelligence and logistical support to facilitate the US and GCC bombings of Syria. Importantly, however, the Wall Street Journal said that they refused to carry out any airstrikes themselves. In turn, this shows that the country is still at odds with GCC-leader Saudi Arabia over Doha’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood (recently designated a terrorist organization by Riyadh) and that it does not want to launch a joint bombing mission with it, regardless of US pressure to do so. The Qataris are along for the ride, so to speak, but only in the hopes that the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates can find a strategic opening to expand Qatar’s reach in Syria at the expense of the Saudis’ proxies.

Concluding Thoughts

The beginning of the bombing campaign against the Islamic State in Syria last week revealed the contemporary nature of the Gulf’s regional politics and the GCC’s internal divisions. Clothed as an anti-terror operation, the operation is really a covert regime change mission orchestrated by the US and its pro-American allies. America ‘Leads From Behind’ and organizes, facilitates, and supervises this task among its disparate leading partners (Turkey and GCC-members Saudi Arabia and Qatar), each of which have their own regime change-related motivations and post-war vision for Syria. Accordingly, although last week’s events could be seen as the first presentation of the GCC’s international military capability, it also brought the group’s internal divisions and disunity to the surface, highlighting that inter-Gulf relations are not as close as they may initially seem.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Sputnik.

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