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What a U.S. strike on Syria means for the Gulf

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Published: Updated:

U.S. President Barack Obama’s shocking announcement that he would ask the U.S. Congress—known for its hostility towards the American president—to debate the need and benefit of punishing Syria certainly seemed to confirm the GCC’s opinion that the American leader is lagging behind the curve in Middle East affairs. Obama’s surprising speech capped a week of predictions of imminent Western punitive strikes against the Syrian government for its most certain use of Sarin gas, killing over a thousand men, women and children.

Whether or not the U.S. strikes Syria, the GCC is reacting to the growing Syrian predicament. Market turmoil and travel warnings are key indicators. Prior to Obama’s announcement, the Dubai Financial Market experienced the largest drop of nearly 10 percent. The Dubai Financial Market General Index (DFMGI) subsequently ended down by 7.1 percent, and the Abu Dhabi Stock Exchange declined by 2.8 percent. The Saudi Stock Exchange lost more than 3.8 percent of its value, the Kuwaiti Stock Exchange fell by 3 percent and Oman Stock Exchange by 1 percent. Although the markets recovered slight gyrations are likely to continue throughout September 2013. Warnings about travel to Lebanon from several GCC states, including Kuwait, were announced.

Raised voices

The GCC is being very vocal about the alleged neurotoxic attack in Syria and is supporting the need to punish Assad’s government for the most serious use of chemical weapons in the 21st century. Just after the attack became public, GCC General Secretary Dr. Abdul Latif Bin Rashid al-Zayani called on the international community to shoulder its responsibilities towards this massacre, stressing the importance of the U.N. Security Council issuing a deterrent resolution in accordance with Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. This would be to save the Syrian people from ongoing and horrific massacres committed by Assad regime’s troops and involve denouncing support from some countries and parties who support his regime.

The rump-like Syrian government will be able to hide, protect, and fortify their most prized military acquisitions.

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Saudi Arabia is probably the most shocked by Obama’s announcement, experiencing feelings of disappointment and abandonment by Riyadh’s U.S. ally. At a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo, the Saudi Foreign Minister stated: “There is no capacity in the Arab world to respond to this kind of crisis.” He severely blamed the deadlocked United Nations Security Council, implicating Russia and China, for failing to approve international military action, two years into a Syrian conflict that the U.N. says has killed more than 100,000 people.

Playing games

The GCC’s disappointment with America’s policy in the Middle East is certainly confirmed by Obama’s shrewd move to play domestic politics at the time of a clear and present danger of the unpunished use of chemical weapons abroad. GCC states, first disappointed with the occupation of Iraq, the ongoing troubles in Afghanistan, then the American reaction to recent events in Egypt and now U.S. inaction in Syria only goes to show how America is retreating from the region (from their perspective). A little over a week ago, Saudi King Abdullah made a speech where he implicitly told the United States to stop paying so much attention to Egypt and focus instead on Syria because Damascus represents a much more serious regional threat. The Saudi monarch and other members of the Saudi strategic elite are now likely very disappointed with their U.S. ally.

Many in the GCC are currently worried that Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, and al-Qaeda affiliated groups will have plenty of time to prepare for the eventual decision regarding the use of punishing air attack on Syria. All actors will be able to better prepare to position themselves for what comes next. Retaliatory attacks against Western targets and the possible expansion of the conflict, as well as a sharp rise in violence in Syria itself are certainly guaranteed but now with greater finesse and accuracy. The rump-like Syrian government will be able to hide, protect, and fortify their most prized military acquisitions. Iran too finds some breathing space; this makes the GCC fearful that Tehran will assert itself more strongly while Washington debates an outcome that no one can clearly predict.

Overall, the GCC is left in a dilemma about American intentions in the region at large. From the GCC’s perspective the push for the ouster of the Syrian president and his regime is clearly a failing policy due to a lack of clarity by U.S. leadership in the region. This fact also confirms the worst fears of the GCC states that America is serious about the strategic pivot to East Asia, leaving the Arabian Peninsula organization wondering about what will come next as the region goes through serious change and violent convulsions.

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Dr. Theodore Karasik is the Director of Research and Consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE. He is also a Lecturer at University of Wollongong Dubai. Dr. Karasik received his PhD in History from the University of California Los Angles.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.