Journal Essay

Eyes Bigger than Stomachs: Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in Syria

Christopher Phillips

Spring 2017, Volume XXIV, Number 1

Mr. Phillips is senior lecturer in the International Relations of the Middle East at Queen Mary University of London and associate fellow at Chatham House's Middle East and North Africa Program.

Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been the leading Middle Eastern states seeking the overthrow of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Having set regime change as their goal in 2011, each state devoted considerable resources to achieving it, including diplomatic and economic sanctions, support for elements of the political and armed opposition, and pressure on the United States to intervene against Assad. However, after six years of conflict, Assad remains in power despite having lost considerable territory, and these three states are all, in varying ways, in a worse position as a result of their Syria policies.

Explaining these failures first requires an understanding of the changing context in which they operated, particularly the debates surrounding U.S. power. The Syrian civil war occurred amid profound changes in the Middle East regional system. The uprising in Syria in 2011 arrived as a perceived "Pax Americana" over the Middle East after the Cold War was coming undone. The failures of the 2003-11 occupation of Iraq, the decreasing importance of Gulf oil, the economic and military retrenchment following the 2008 financial crisis, and the election of Barack Obama, a critic of his predecessor's military adventures, all prompted reluctance in Washington to continue an active hegemony.

Some see structural causes for these changes: part of a wider global decline in U.S. power. The unipolar post-Cold War international order dominated by the United States was becoming "multipolar," with China, Russia and possibly the EU, India and Brazil challenging U.S. hegemony.1 In the Middle East, what Fawaz Gerges calls "America's moment" was over, and multiple regional powers moved to fill the vacuum.2 The weakening of states like Iraq and the growth of transnational actors such as Hezbollah, the PKK and al-Qaeda were other features of this new multipolar order.3 Another group of scholars agree that change has occurred, but argue that American hegemony gave way to a bipolar system based on two blocs led by Saudi Arabia and Iran.4 Sectarian differences between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran are a factor in what Gregory Gause calls a "New Middle East Cold War."

This interpretation of declining U.S. power is challenged by a range of "supremacist" scholars and commentators such as Joseph Nye, Stephen Brooks, G. John Ikenberry and William Wohlforth, who argue that U.S. dominance is far from over. Globally, the United States was weakened by events in the 2000s, but no emerging power even came close to matching U.S. military strength, and international institutions remain those designed and dominated by Washington. They note that many have predicted U.S. decline, as in the 1980s, and been proven wrong.5 These arguments downplay the structural changes highlighted by the declinists and instead focus on the agency of Barack Obama as president. The United States may have stepped back in the Middle East, but this was a temporary political move rather than a structural shift away from U.S. hegemony. Such commentators and scholars expected a reversion to dominance under a Clinton presidency.6 With a Trump victory, all bets are off.

At the global level, the debate over U.S. decline will likely continue, not least because of its political significance. However, the Syrian civil war helps to illustrate that the United States no longer dominates the Middle East.7 This does not mean that a new regional system has replaced the unipolar order, whether multipolar or bipolar. The region remains in flux. The United States under Obama was the most powerful actor, playing a lead role in regional politics by trying to revive the Israel-Palestine peace process, reaching an international agreement on Iran's nuclear program and seeking ceasefires in Syria. However, it no longer enjoys the perceived hegemony of the 1990s and 2000s, and other actors are vying to increase their influence.

However, the United States has still been perceived by many Middle Eastern actors to be the hegemon, while Washington has understandably not sought to promote the reality that it is less dominant than before. This misperception has affected some states' policies, with allies such as Saudi Arabia repeatedly urging the United States to be more active and growing disillusioned with Washington when it refused. A multipolar Middle East appears the most accurate description of the changes underway, with a Saudi-Iranian cold war a component of it rather than the defining feature.8 The Syrian Civil War was shaped and driven by this regional environment, but this in turn reinforced the trend towards multipolarity and an end to U.S. dominance.9

The U.S. regional allies Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar found themselves in a contradictory position as a result of these regional changes. On the one hand, alongside Iran and Russia, Turkey and Qatar sought to expand their own influence as the United States retreated. Saudi Arabia, similarly, found itself having to be more proactive, primarily to defend against Iran's increased activism. All three saw the Syrian civil war as a key arena for their various regional ambitions. However, Doha, Riyadh and Ankara drew much of their power from their longstanding alliances with the United States, having previously "bandwagoned" with the hegemon.10 Though each pursued ambitious policies and rhetoric in Syria, in different ways each lacked the capacity to achieve these goals without U.S. assistance. They, therefore, found themselves in the contradictory position of pushing an agenda more loudly as the result of U.S. retreat yet simultaneously demanding that Washington play a more active role to help them. They badly misread the Obama administration, damaging their ties to Washington and worsening the situation in Syria.

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