GCC states boxed in by US sanctions on Syria

The United States creates dilemmas for GCC in Syria; Qatar steps up with $500 million Lebanon investment; Netanyahu seeks Arab photo-op in Poland.

al-monitor Gulf Cooperation Councill leaders are seen ahead of their summit meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Dec. 9, 2018.  Photo by Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS.

Feb 1, 2019

Gulf seeks to avoid US sanctions on Syria

“By opposing the legitimacy of Assad’s government and continuing to impose sanctions on Damascus and individuals in Assad’s clique,” writes Giorgio Cafiero, “Washington is creating dilemmas for Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, such as the United Arab Emirates, that see Syria’s reconstruction as representing important opportunities for economic and geopolitical empowerment. Undoubtedly, securing lucrative contracts in Syria’s reconstruction will inevitably entail cooperating with the Damascus regime. Yet this reality has potential to create further complications in regional dynamics, as well as US-GCC relations.”

This column said last month, “As the Gulf states reconsider their relations with Damascus and Syria’s return to the Arab League, and as the United States looks to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf to finance Syrian reconstruction, a question will emerge regarding US and multilateral sanctions. … More sanctions … could constrain regional and international efforts to support a Syrian transition and the country’s reconstruction, including initiatives of the United Nations and the World Bank. As it is with Iran, the United States could find itself boxed in, seeking exceptions to its own sanctions policies to allow allies to fund reconstruction.”

“The UAE’s hosting of a Syrian trade delegation earlier this month was a case in point,” reports Cafiero. “Mohammed Hamsho, a Syrian closely tied to the Assad family who has been sanctioned by the US Treasury, led the delegation. Other Syrian lawmakers and businessmen also targeted by US sanctions attended too. The long reach of US sanctions is unquestionably a concern for GCC states that seek to exert their influence in Syria, primarily via construction projects. Non-US companies, such as Emirati ones, seeking to enter Syria must account for Washington’s sanctions because any involvement of US citizens or American firms risks trouble. Given that Syria’s business climate is opaque, even careful companies that do their due diligence may find themselves violating US sanctions if they deal with Syrian individuals or entities targeted by Washington.”

“For the UAE and other GCC states, which seek to become major players in Syria’s post-conflict business landscape, US sanctions that require such entities in the Gulf to take even greater risk by entering Syria pose dilemmas as Abu Dhabi, Manama and other Arab capitals seek to gain greater economic, diplomatic and geopolitical influence in Damascus,” adds Cafiero. “The dynamics will likely serve to further frustrate GCC states, which have on many occasions throughout both Donald Trump and Barack Obama’s presidencies accused the leadership in Washington of failing to account for the interests of America’s closest allies in the Gulf when making key decisions on US foreign policy vis-a-vis Syria.” 

Qatar steps up in Lebanon

Two weeks ago we wrote here that the decision by Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, to lead his country’s delegation to the Arab economic summit in Beirut on Jan. 21, had, in one stroke, put Qatar “back in the game, on Syria and in Lebanon, at the expense of Saudi Arabia.”

The announcement by Qatar at the summit that it would invest up to $500 million in Lebanese government bonds will provide the country’s bond market “with assurances following Lebanese officials’ hints at a debt restructuring later this month that spooked markets as Lebanese politicians rushed to convince investors that their money was secure in the country,” Cafiero reports.

“In terms of the Gulf’s evolving geopolitical balance of power,” Cafiero writes, “Qatar’s economic and diplomatic offensive in Lebanon this month highlights how far Riyadh is from achieving the underlying goals of the blockade. Such objectives have centered around preventing Doha from conducting an autonomous and influential foreign policy that undermines the kingdom’s traditional role as the anchor of a conservative order in the Sunni Arab world. At the end of the day, the Gulf crisis has served to make Qatar more confident as Doha challenges and counters the longstanding influence of Saudi Arabia and the other blockading states throughout the Arab world. As the Qataris see it, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia has “lost” Lebanon and now the opportunity has arisen for Doha to fill the void. Meanwhile, the blockading states will push narratives about Doha’s move in Lebanon providing further confirmation of alleged Qatari support for Hezbollah.”

Bibi’s magic word

“From [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s point of view, one photo-op with Arab leaders at the anti-Iran conference is worth tens of thousands of words about how Israel is missing the opportunity of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, a road map that offers it an opportunity to rid itself of the occupation and to isolate radical Islamist forces led by Iran and Hezbollah,” writes Akiva Eldar.

The Feb. 13 gathering in Poland will feature more than 70 world leaders. Eldar says, “Behind the seemingly bland conference title — 'Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East — hides Netanyahu’s magic word, which is also the key word of his re-election campaign: Iran.”

“Will representatives of Arab Sunni states, with Saudi Arabia at their head, pose for photos at a conference on ‘peace and security in the Middle East’ that ignores the dying Israeli-Palestinian peace process?” asks Eldar. “Will regional leaders agree to serve as extras in the Likud Party’s campaign propaganda 'Only Netanyahu can beat Iran’? Or as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said, will they agree to feature in ‘a desperate circus’?”

“On the other hand, publicly abandoning the Palestinian issue plays into the hands of the Iranian zealots and their Jewish twins,” concludes Eldar. “The Iranians will not miss an opportunity to portray the Sunni leaders in their worthlessness. The Israeli hard-liners will rush to paste the photos from Warsaw in the official photo albums of Netanyahu’s recent visits to the Muslim capitals of Oman and Chad. A group photo of the conference participants will not promote peace or security in the Middle East. These goals are unattainable with a leader (Netanyahu) more terrified of a peace plan than of a missile war and more scared of doing jail time than of civil war breaking out in his country.” 

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