If there is one thing that the Gulf states cannot be accused of, it is affection for Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime in Damascus. Every Gulf state has suffered from Syrian subversion. Syrian security agents aided an attempted coup in Qatar in the mid-1990s. The primary challenge facing Kuwait and Bahrain is Shiite opposition and terror supported by Hezbollah, Tehran and Damascus. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is the bitter enemy of Iran, which happens to be Assad's benefactor.
Still, Gulf states kept quiet when revolution reached Syria in March, and stayed quiet during the protracted popular uprising that has ensued. Assuming that the Sunni majority would be unable to topple Assad's regime, they preferred not to open up another front against Syria.
No longer. The first sign of the Gulf states' new approach appeared a month and a half ago on the Qatar-based station Al Jazeera. In contrast to its early coverage of the uprising, which was generally reserved, Al Jazeera gradually began to devote more time and air space to the protests. Qatar also unleashed its secret weapon, Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of Islam's most prominent preachers, who attacked the Syrian government for indiscriminately massacring civilians. Last week, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador from Damascus, as did Kuwait and Bahrain.
These moves were aimed more at the international community than at the Syrian regime. The Gulf states are signalling that they are prepared to take aggressive steps against Damascus, even if that means absorbing international pressure. The main problem is that it is not clear that the West seeks a confrontation with Syria, especially as any such move would provoke retaliatory acts of terror from Hezbollah and Iran, who would do anything to protect their imperiled ally.
Meanwhile, in Damascus, the Alawite leadership finds itself trapped. While some members of the Syrian government understand that the battle against the people has become a lost cause and would prefer simply to hang on to parts of the regime, the Assad family and its loyalists know that, for them, it's all or nothing. Unlike former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Assad will not be put into a cage without a real fight.
In this fight, Assad has no problem sacrificing his loyalists. He dismissed Alawite Defense Minister Ali Habib, who until his exit was considered one of the pillars of the regime (rumors claim that Habib objected to sending armed forces into Hama). His replacement, Daoud Rajha, is viewed as more aggressive, and it is interesting to note the extent to which the regime has emphasized Rajha's Christian roots in a desperate attempt to garner the support of an additional minority group in its fight against the Sunni majority. Rajha is a puppet on a string and it is doubtful that this maneuver will work.
The Assad family and its loyalists are leading the struggle, and both sides -- the regime and its opponents -- know that this is a zero-sum game. Assad's hollow declarations about making internal reforms have already been forgotten, and now it is clear that the regime will either survive on the army's bayonets, or fall completely. There is no middle ground.
Bashar Assad's situation is so dire that he doesn't even dare deploy all his army units in the streets, out of fear that some of them will defect to the rebels' side. His is keeping the majority of the army's soldiers on their bases, while attempting to enforce quiet on his streets through a select cadre of forces that he trusts implicitly. This is why the number of defectors has stayed low even while demonstrations continue to strengthen.
If Tehran chooses to incite the Shiites in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, or Hezbollah, the twilight of Assad's murderous regime in Damascus could destabilize the entire Middle East. The question is how many corpses will pile up first, and how many regional shocks will first be felt, before Arab states abandon their hesitation and deliver the final, decisive push to the Syrian regime.
The writer is the author of the book “The Abyss,” which explores Israel's relations with the Arab world.