How strong is Arab League support for striking Syria?

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Published: Updated:

Despite what may be an emerging, high-stakes, diplomatic dialogue to address the suspected use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, there are still preparations for assembling a workable coalition of Arab League member states with the United States for a punitive strike against Syria in the near term.

In the past few days, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Arab League members in an attempt to garner an international coalition to punish Syria for Damascus’ purported use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians. The Arab League states agreed to condemn Assad for the use of neuro-toxins but stopped short of endorsing military punishment. At the same time, two prominent Saudi commentators wrote op-ed pieces in the New York Times entitled “Arab D-Day,” which focuses on the alternate reality of Arab states cobbling together a force of tens of thousands of soldiers for a land invasion of Syria to occupy parts of the shattered country. What does this rhetoric really mean? Will the U.S. be successful in allying itself with Arab states, specifically Saudi Arabia, to degrade and destroy Syria’s military if necessary?

U.S. President Barack Obama, who turned over his plan to deliver punitive strikes against the Syrian military to Congress, desperately needs foreign support. It is a given that Congress will not give its OK to Obama’s plan. Consequently, the U.S. administration is turning towards the Arab world, specifically through the Arab League, on a state by state basis, to help out politically and militarily to justify Obama’s air campaign, whether short term or longer if need be.

Rallying Arab support

Secretary Kerry is trying his upmost to gain Arab support, probably the most critical backing for the American plan. In Paris, Kerry said the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, told him that Saudi Arabia would support an American-led strike. Qatar also said it would back foreign intervention, though it did not explicitly endorse airstrikes. Other GCC states are likely to give backing to America. An interesting hint of support for America, before Kerry’s meeting with Arab League representatives, came from Secretary-General Abdul Lateef al-Zayani who urged the international community to intervene immediately to “rescue” the Syrian people. Referring to the genocide and human rights violations in Syria, al-Zayani said: “the intervention aims to rescue the brotherly Syrian people from the oppression of its regime and bring their sufferings to an end.”

Kerry is trying his upmost to gain Arab support, probably the most critical backing for the American plan

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Clearly, Saudi Arabia’s support for America’s Syrian plan is critical. The kingdom is pushing for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s removal as well as a “re-direction” of the country away from Iran. Senior Saudi leaders are repeatedly calling for action in Syria to stop the bloodshed. At the same time that Kerry met with Arab League representatives, two Saudi commentators, with high level connections to the Saudi leadership, opined that the Arab League should create a “Military Unified Command” consisting of nearly 100,000 along Jordan’s border for a potential staging ground for an Arab invasion. According to the authors, Turkey would also play a role in a sea embargo in the hope that the Assad government would be “choked and destroyed” and replaced by a large Arab military contingent to keep the peace and secure the Syria’s minority groups.

This Saudi plan is reminiscent of reporting two ago regarding the creation of a “Muslim military force” supported by Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the current head of the Saudi National Security Council and chief of Saudi intelligence. Bandar’s plan, launched a few months after the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011, sought to create a capable force from Arab states, Asia, and South Asia. This force, in theory, would be nimble enough as a rapid reaction force to achieve strategic and tactical goals and would avoid any Western forces on the ground in the Arab world and thus negating any arguments that “foreigners” and “crusaders” are invading the Middle East’s core. The idea of an Arab League “Military Unified Command” appears to be built on Bandar’s original foundation.

The likelihood of assembling such a force on short notice seems unthinkable. But we have been surprised before by the events of the last few weeks and more surprises seem to be in the waiting. In addition, one should not discount the idea that Saudi Arabia will provide additional support to any American-led air operation by supporting Washington with air assets. Other GCC countries may offer their airfields and even some air forces to assist the Americans. To make the point even more clear, Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Salman bin Sultan is spending time at the U.S.’s CENTCOM-Forward in Jordan, most likely coordinating and making tactical plans for the near future.

These moves by Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies come at a time when the United States is under immense pressure to show that Washington is not abandoning key Gulf States and other Arab neighbors. The Arab League as a whole is not supportive of U.S. military action against Syria, but individual member states are stepping forward with tacit and explicit verbal support. Kerry said a number of Arab League countries endorsed a statement released by the U.S. on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. The statement, supported by 12 G20 countries, calls for a “strong international response” to the Assad government’s alleged chemical-arms attack on Aug. 21, 2013. Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiyah said his country supported the statement. He added, “we call on all other countries to intervene to protect the Syrian people from what [they are] being subjected to.” Finally, in a meeting of GCC foreign ministers, Bahraini Foreign Minister Shaykh Khaled Al Khalifa urged “necessary deterrent measures against the perpetrators of this ugly crime, for which the Syrian regime is responsible.” The overall takeaway from the GCC foreign minister’s meeting is that even a chemical weapons agreement does not fully address key issues in today’s Syrian morass.

From the Gulf point of view, America needs to show that at this critical juncture in the Syrian maelstrom, Washington is still a reliable ally to key Arab League members. Obama’s speech to the American people is a clear indicator that the administration is keeping up pressure on the Assad regime. In addition, a strong U.S. hand in the face of Russian overtures on a Syrian chemical weapons deal –which would likely to take years with a large contingent of inspectors and equipment in an unprecedented civil war environment— is an approach highly acceptable to key Arab states. Clearly, Riyadh is in a full court press to convince the United States that by aligning together against Syria, the proper course of history in the Levant and beyond is guaranteed and in light of doing so, the U.S.-Saudi relationship will remain robust.


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 Ph.D in History from the University of California Los Angles.

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