THE BLOG
03/14/2014 04:05 pm ET Updated May 14, 2014

The Bid to Dismantle the GCC: Those Who Benefit and Those Who Are Targeted

It is Iran and Israel, and also Turkey, that stand to benefit primarily from the unraveling of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in the region. Saudi Arabia is at the top of the list of the targeted countries as a result of any unraveling of the security, economic, and political bloc that is the GCC, being the country with the biggest weight in that grouping. Saudi policy on Egypt, which is backed by the UAE, raised alarm bells in regional and international capitals opposed to any strong Arab role in the regional balance of power. This strategically important policy has so far been successful, while Gulf policy on Syria has bordered on failure, and is in drastic need for a full revision, especially in light of Damascus's decision to disregard the transitional political process in Syria by moving to hold presidential elections this summer. To be sure, Syria and Iraq, two fundamental Arab countries at the heart of the regional balance of power, are on Iran's end of the weighing scale, so to speak.

GCC members have fallen out and scattered over the different priorities of each Gulf nation, especially those of Qatar and Oman. This first requires an explicit recognition of the different orientations of each of the six member states. Second, it needs careful thinking about the meaning and implications of establishing an alternative regional security order. Third, there must be an accurate probing of the U.S. position on the regional balance of power, in light of the UAE-backed Saudi-Egyptian collaboration, which is feared and resisted by Israel. Fourth, it must be determined whether Washington favors dismantling the GCC and sees this as one way to appease Iran.

President Barack Obama's visit to Riyadh requires a radical sorting of these questions and coherent strategic answers at all levels and concerning all issues. Monitoring American-Russian relations in light of the developments in Ukraine is of course also important. But firmness and assertion in the Ukrainian issue must not be conflated with the hope of seeing this be reflected on American-Russian relations in the Syrian, Iranian, Israeli, Gulf, or other dimensions.

What is happening in Ukraine has to do with the NATO-Russia equation. Russian President Vladimir Putin was lured to becoming implicated in measures that are costly for him and Russia, no matter how much it seems to him that he is defying and defeating the West, and thwarting its plans. Putin has set a trap for himself, or fell into the trap that was set for him.

The measures to annex Crimea satisfied unbridled Russian nationalism, but this annexation will give the rest of Ukraine to NATO on a golden platter, fulfilling the demands of the Ukrainian uprising against Russia.

As one Western diplomat summed it up: The first prize is Kiev, not the Crimea. Moscow's monopoly of Crimea means losing Kiev. Furthermore, Moscow's annexation of the Crimea reinforces the argument of the Baltic countries wishing to join NATO, that the enemy is Russia and that they need protection through the NATO umbrella. In other words, what increased the likelihood or inevitability of Ukraine joining NATO is precisely the Ukrainian crisis and the Russian measures towards it, through the re-annexation of the Crimea, which Khrushchev had "donated" to Ukraine in the last century.

The West does not assign extraordinary importance to the Crimea. From the outset the majority of NATO countries wanted Ukraine to join the alliance. Putin behaved with the irrational arbitrariness of nationalism when he jumped into the trap of annexing the Crimea, forgetting that the peninsula is only a small part rather than the basis of Western strategy on Ukraine.

The re-annexation of the Crimea effectively signals the beginning of a new chapter for the countries wishing to accede to NATO like Estonia and Latvia. It is also signals the start of a chapter of partition and redrawing borders in Central Asian countries, starting with Kazakhstan and others. Unity and territorial integrity is a principle that Moscow has long touted, but now, it is practically tearing it with its own hands, either because it was lured into the trap or because it fell into the trap of irrational nationalism.

The Western powers have given enough rope to Putin to hang himself with. At the United Nations, all that the Western powers have been doing is to reaffirm general principles, including territorial integrity, while working on driving a wedge between Russia and China under this principle. Even if the Western powers fail to separate China from Russia, they have set for themselves a clear priority, namely, deepening the hole that Russia has dug for itself.

Even Germany has found it difficult to continue defending Russia in isolation from the rest of EU nations on several issues related to the Russian position. This is sweet music to the ears of some European powers.

Yet all this does not mean at all that the Western countries are prepared for a direct confrontation with Russia using any means other than sanctions and isolation, nor do they need to since they have already obtained the prize of having Kiev in NATO.

Vladimir Putin has decided to cut his losses and seek grand bargains and accords with the Western powers -- though this is unlikely to pan out. Instead, he has decided to consolidate his "victories" elsewhere, including Syria.

The Western powers do not care about Russia's victories in Syria. The Syrian arena too is a major quagmire for Russia, no matter how much Moscow believes that it is winning the grand prize in that part of the Middle East.

Morally speaking, the Western powers, especially the United States, are bankrupt in how they have dealt with Syria, perhaps as much as Russia and China are. Practically speaking, Syria is a quagmire for Russia and its allies in the axis, regardless of their immediate military victories. From the U.S. point of view, winning over a torn state, which is on the brink of fragmentation, whose territory has been overrun by the war on terrorism and a nihilist ideology, whose leadership is rejected by half of the people, whose heritage is being destroyed, and whose people are being displaced, is not a real win or victory after all.

Instead, a major power named Russia is implicated in a civil war in Syria. This is in the interests of the West. To be sure, Washington is not disturbed by the Russian arrogance in Syria, as long as this major power is being drawn to the quagmire of civil war there, while Russia styles itself as the front and the leader of the war on terrorism.

All this does not absolve the Americans or the Russians of their moral failures in Syria, which has become a testament to the moral decline of the two leaderships, in the name of defending their respective national interests.

Joint UN-Arab envoy in Syria LakhdarBrahimihad wagered on American-Russian accord over Syria, but he has since lost the bet. The divide between Russia and the U.S. is now too great. Washington will not engage and will continue to evade and distance itself from Syria for the time being. For its part, Russia will remain an ally of the regime in Damascus whatever happens.

The strategy of the regime in Damascus in its first tack is based on upending the Geneva 1 communiqué requiring the establishment of a transitional governing body in Syria, by insisting on reducing the Syrian issue to being one of fighting terrorism. As a result, the Geneva talks ground to a halt because of that insistence and the refusal of the attempts to adapt to it, with Brahimi proposing parallel talks to address the terrorism issue, alongside the primary purpose of the Geneva talks, namely the implementation of the Geneva 1 communiqué and establishing a transitional governing body.

The second tack of the regime's strategy is to thwart the establishment of a transitional government, which is now being implemented by moving to hold presidential elections in Syria. The fact of the matter is that the UN Security Council will not lift a finger to halt the presidential elections, which Russia wants as much as the regime in Syria wants. Nor will Washington lift a finger.

This will compel Saudi to formulate a clear position on the developments in Syria, on the eve of President Obama's visit to Riyadh. According to sources, Brahimi plans to visit Tehran on Saturday, perhaps in an attempt to seek Iran's assistance in resolving the electoral problem in Syria, and perhaps also to mend relations between Tehran and the UN after Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon rescinded his invitation to Iran to attend the Geneva 2 talks. Riyadh can either step up its actual support for the Syrian opposition on the field and militarily, or reconsider its stated positions calling for toppling the Syrian regime, instead accepting to coexist with it in power through elections. This is what Washington wants to discuss candidly with Riyadh during Obama's visit.

The visit will not be exclusively focused on the Syrian issue. Both sides want the visit to renew the exceptional and historic relationship, no matter what.

In effect, the bilateral relationship carries in its folds many issues like Iran, Egypt, Palestine, and Iraq, and not just Syria. Regarding Palestine, there is a consensus on an Arab role -- particularly a Saudi role -- in the bid to reach a Palestinian-Israeli agreement to achieve the two-state solution.

Egypt is not the subject of American-Saudi accord, particularly in the context of the strategic Saudi-Egyptian relationship and its implications for the regional balance of power. Indeed, Washington is accommodating Tel Aviv's desire to resist the emergence of a sizeable Arab say in the regional balance of power.

Inadvertently or intentionally, Qatar's positions meet with the American-Israeli desire to head off a Saudi-Egyptian alliance, whose main purpose would be to restore the Arab weight in the regional balance of power. The Muslim Brotherhood is nothing but a secondary detail in this equation.

The recent crisis in the Saudi-Qatari relations also has an important dimension in the context of the GCC, in terms of its survival or unraveling. This in turn is part of the equation of the balance of power and the security arrangement in the region.

Qatar has certainly not abandoned its traditionally good relationship with Iran, despite their divergence over the Syrian issue. Qatar, like Oman, has been keen to meet Iran's basic demand calling for a new regional security arrangement that would bring together the GCC, Iran, and Iraq. This demand, practically and realistically, requires the dismantling of the GCC.

Oman has shown an Iranian orientation a while back, and it opposes the Saudi demand to establish a "union" among the six GCC countries: Saudi Arabia; UAE; Kuwait; Qatar; Oman, and Bahrain. The visit by Iranian President Hassan Rohani to Muscat this week has tightened the bonds between the two countries that control both sides of the Strait of Hormuz, which is crossed by 40 percent of the oil transported by sea to the world. Foreign Minister Yousuf bin Alawi was keen on highlighting Oman's role in the U.S.-Iranian rapprochement secretly and publicly since the days of President Bill Clinton. Oman's position, for example on Syria, is identical to that of Iran, Russia, and the regime in Damascus, which holds that the solution there is to "drive out foreign terrorists from Syria."

The GCC, then, is in a predicament and a state of division, and is facing the shadow of disintegration, which is desired by Iran, Israel, and perhaps also the U.S. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's attacks on Saudi Arabia are but a part of the strategy to dismantle the GCC, to pave the way for the Iranian vision for a new security arrangement and alternative policy on Syria.

(Translation - Karim Traboulsi)

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