Divided over a conflict they failed to resolve diplomatically, Arab countries are powerless observers of possible US strikes on Syria not designed to achieve what most of them want — President Bashar al-Assad’s downfall.
“The Arab countries are weak, preoccupied by their own internal affairs. Some of them care little about what will happen in Syria,” said Emirati analyst Abdelkhaleq Abdallah.
“They are angry at the attitude of the international community which (they feel) has betrayed the Syrian people, but also by the fact that an Arab country is being targeted in unilateral strikes, without UN approval.”
The Arab League, which suspended Syria’s membership in November 2011 and gave its seat to the main opposition group, has squarely accused the Assad regime of carrying out a chemical weapons attack in Damascus last week that killed hundreds.
US Secretary of State John Kerry cited the pan-Arab body on Friday among a list of allies “ready to respond” to the chemicals weapons attack.
But influential League members, including Egypt, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon and Tunisia, have expressed opposition to foreign military intervention in Syria.
For Ibrahim Shaqieh, an expert on international crises at the Doha Brookings Centre, “this confusion reflects the state of shock that still exists throughout the entire Arab world” since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Like the governments, meanwhile, the opinion of the Arab public is equally torn, Shaqieh added.
“Sentimentally, the Arabs reject foreign interventionism in the affairs of their countries, but logically they accept such interventionism,” he said.
As proof of this, he mentioned the fact that possible Western military intervention in Syria has not provoked any large-scale protests in Arab capitals such as was witnessed when the Iraq war began 10 years ago.
US President Barack Obama has vowed action to deter Damascus from using chemical weapons again, while ruling out “boots on the ground” or a “long-term campaign”.
The Gulf monarchies, however, led by Saudi Arabi which, alongside Qatar is the main supporter of the Syrian opposition, “would prefer decisive action which puts an end to the regime of Bashar al-Assad,” according to Abdelkhaleq Abdallah, the Emirati analyst.
Abdel Aziz al-Sagr, who heads the Gulf Research Centre, agreed, saying the oil-rich Gulf states “are ready, if asked, to participate in an international coalition” against Assad.
Instead, the United States is seeking “to weaken the regime in Damascus and not overthrow it,” he added.
Some of the Gulf countries, notably Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, played a role in the military operations in Libya that led to strongman Moamer Kadhafi’s ouster and eventual death in 2011.
By contrast, the role of Arab states in any US military operation in Syria would be “only of a logistical nature,” said Mustafa al-Ani, another analyst at the Gulf Research Center.
Bahrain is the home base of the US Fifth Fleet, while Centcom, the US command responsible for 20 countries in the Middle East and Central Asia, has a regional headquarters in Qatar, which also hosts the largest US air base in the Middle East.
“The United States needs no one at the military level. But it is extremely important for them not to be alone at the political level,” said Bruno Tertrais, an analyst at the Foundation for Strategic Research.
He said the Americans, like their French allies, would emphasise the support of Arab countries for military intervention, “because everyone wants to avoid giving the impression that this is a Western operation against Syria.”
But in the event of any strikes affecting the civilian population, “the reaction on the Arab street will be negative,” said the Emirati analyst.