In December 2018 Bahrain and the UAE reactivated their embassies in Damascus. Emirati Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash stated that the decision was necessitated in response to deepening Iranian and Turkish interference in Syrian affairs, noting that “the next stage requires Arab presence and communication on the Syrian file”.

Bahrain’s Foreign Ministry also said that the reopening of its embassy aimed to “strengthen the Arab role and activate it in order to preserve the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria and prevent the risk of regional interference in its affairs”.

GCC states had continued to take an active interest in developments in Syria and Iraq through their involvement in the Coalition against ISIS. For example; Saudi Arabia in late 2018 announced the contribution of $100m for stabilization projects in areas of eastern Syria liberated from Daesh. “This is the largest coalition contribution to date for these liberated areas;” commented the Saudi embassy in Washington in a press statement.

A further concern for GCC states at the time were growing indications that Donald Trump intended to withdraw US troops from Syria. Prince Turki al-Faisal in January 2019 commented that a US troop withdrawal from Syria would have a negative impact, benefitting Iran and Russia and further entrenching Bashar al-Assad. “The US actions from my perspective is that it is going to further complicate, rather find any solutions to it and further entrench not only the Iranians, but also the Russians and Bashar al Assad, so from the perspective it is a very negative development,” he said. GCC officials also voiced concern at the departure from the Administration of US officials like James Mattis and John Bolton who advocated for a strong US posture in Syria and Iraq in order to counter Iranian encroachment.

Indeed, by October 2019 Trump announced that he would withdraw American troops from northern Syria, paving the way for a full Turkish invasion and operations against the Kurds. GCC condemnation of Turkey’s actions were strong and immediate, with the UAE describing the Turkish invasion as a dangerous development and a blatant and unacceptable aggression against the sovereignty of a brotherly Arab state in contravention of the rules of international law. The Saudi Foreign Ministry furthermore emphasized the need to ensure the safety of the Syrian people, and Syrian sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The reduced US troop presence also raised GCC concerns that Iran would take the opportunity to expand its presence across; either directly or through the use of proxies. Indeed, in December 2019 GCC states welcomed US strikes against Iran-backed militants in Iraq and Syria, notably the Hezbollah Brigades.

GCC states continue to discuss how best to grapple with the continued existence of the Assad regime in Syria. Assad’s return to the Arab League would likely be conditional on distancing himself from Tehran. Meanwhile, all Syrian citizens should be allowed to return to their homes and rebuild their lives in peace, without fear of arrest or mistreatment. Likewise in northeastern Syria, GCC states will be keen to ensure that the Turkish occupation doesn’t become permanent and that chronic instability in these areas doesn’t pave the way for further encroachments by Iran and Daesh. 

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