Is the West united with its Gulf allies over Syria?

Unverified grab of shelling in Homs released 8 February Image copyright Other
Image caption Areas of the city of Homs have been heavily shelled for days, witnesses say

In the aftermath of the failed UN vote, the countries of the Saudi Arabian led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have expelled Syrian diplomatic missions, and there is credible talk that leading members of that alliance intend to step up arms supplies to the Free Syrian Army.

But do the UK and France, who have been vocal in support of the same Arab countries, share the same objectives?

The part answer is that there is no contradiction. Diplomatic initiatives such as the 22nd January Arab League plan emphasise the need for a democratic transition involving all of Syria's social groups.

This was embodied in the UN draft which called on members to, "facilitate a Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, plural political system, in which citizens are equal regardless of their affiliations or ethnicities or beliefs".

If the UK and France wish to practice realpolitik there is evident sense in combining with an old ally (Saudi Arabia) or a newer one (Qatar) to thwart a common enemy (Iran).

But the US, UK, and France have emphasised that their approach on Syria has been motivated by humanitarian compassion and the desire to see a transition to democracy, rather than a desire to strike a blow against Iran by toppling its close friend President Assad.

Talking to people connected with the formulation of policy in recent months in London, their motivations appear to combine principle - a belief in the helping the Syrians to a better future - with opportunism in the sense of wanting to ride the wave of Arab public opinion, angry with despots across the region, rather than getting in its way.

Little consideration, say some, has been given either to the inconsistencies of this policy or to the possible long term effects.

So the UK's allies in hammering away at President Assad's rule, are unrepresentative monarchies that also rely on repressive methods.

Some of these GCC countries also sent troops into Bahrain in March 2011 to help in the suppression of that emirate's pro-democracy movement.

Saudi Arabia has at least been consistent in its foreign policy of recent years.

So, for example: it backed anti-American insurgents in Iraq; the US cables released by Wikileaks revealed a Saudi plan in 2008 to send troops to Lebanon; they led the GCC contingents into Bahrain; and now they back the anti-Assad opposition.

In each case Saudi Arabia was siding with Sunni co-religionists against adherents of the Shia form of Islam (or the Alawite sect of it in Syria).

It opposed the installation of a Shia dominated government under American auspices in Iraq, sought to check Hezbollah in Lebanon, or to deny the Shia majority in Bahrain power while encouraging the Sunni majority in Syria to take it.

Western countries by contrast have proven inconsistent.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Pictures of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad are placed in the middle of a street among trash in Bab Sabaa neighbourhood of Homs

The Bush Administration by invading Iraq and putting pressure on Lebanon to hold elections, assisted in the victory of Shia movements in those countries.

Many commentators have gone as far as to suggest that they ended up furthering Iran's regional interests as a result.

More recently, the Obama Administration has tried to advocate democratic values in the countries of North Africa where people have overthrown despots.

However the results have not been encouraging in the sense that while elections have been held successfully in Tunisia and Egypt, the systems that are emerging there, characterized by some as 'illiberal democracies', are not those that western countries are particularly comfortable with.

In Egypt, 19 Americans who went there as field workers for groups fostering democratic values, now stand charged with criminal offences - a few have even taken refuge in the US embassy.

The country's Coptic Christian minority, meanwhile, complains of growing persecution.

While the bitter US or British experience of Iraq has combined with budgetary anxieties to produce a strong aversion to military intervention in the 'Arab Spring', even this rule has had its exception in Libya.

That in its turn has created unrealistic expectations of western action from the battered districts of Homs to the plush corridors of the Kremlin.

Finding themselves at the mercy of events, European countries and the US are trying to steer a path through these new crises.

But current policies have left them open to accusations of double standards over Gulf countries like Bahrain, or of furthering Sunni interests in the region.

If, as some reports suggest, Saudi Arabia and Qatar intend to deliver large quantities of weapons to the Syrian opposition, then it could exacerbate the sectarian nature of that conflict and produce a crisis between western countries and their Gulf Arab allies.