— Gulf Arab states are preparing to launch a series of measures against Hezbollah’s interests in the region. The move is in retaliation for the Lebanese Shi’ite militant group’s growing military involvement in Syria.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman, recently announced it would begin imposing sanctions against Hezbollah associates.
Officials said the measures will target suspected affiliates’ “residency permits and financial and commercial dealings.”
The action comes after Hezbollah sent forces to Syria, which played a major role in helping pro-government troops recapture the strategic town of Qusair.
Theodore Karasik is the director of research and development at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis:
"Hezbollah has entered into Syria in a very serious manner and this is causing a ripple effect across the region, where there may be sympathizers for Hezbollah’s movement, and I think that the GCC is attempting to show whose side they are really on," he said.
Most Muslim states, including those in the Gulf, have traditionally approved of Hezbollah as a bulwark against Israel, despite regarding it as an Iranian proxy.
Hezbollah's increasing involvement in Syria, however, has shifted sentiments and has intensified the rift between Sunnis and Shi’ites. A Shi’ite Muslim offshoot dominates Syria’s government and Shi'ite Muslims constitute a majority in Iran.
Last week, Muslim clerics representing 70 influential Sunni organizations called for a holy war against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Shi’ite allies.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have both used their oil fortunes to gain political influence in the region, are among the strongest critics of Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria. And according to news reports, both nations have been actively involved in helping to arm the anti-Assad rebels.
According to Michael Stevens, a researcher at RUSI Qatar, their opposition stems in part from concerns that the GCC is in a less commanding position.
"I think what we see is that there is just an existential fear of Iran gaining in the region and of the Gulf states having put a lot of money, time, weapons and diplomatic effort behind one side of the Syrian conflict only to see the Shi’ite forces within the region mobilising and starting to beat them back," said Stevens.
Analysts say Gulf nations are also using the Syria conflict as a way to clamp down on sources of dissent at home.
Bahrain’s Sunni rulers have been dealing with a pro-reform uprising led by the nation’s Shi’ite majority since 2011. Bahrain accuses Hezbollah of backing and training radical gangs inside the kingdom, a claim Hezbollah denies.
In a televised address Friday, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah announced that his troops would continue fighting in Syria.
And according to analyst Karasik in Dubai, the GCC is preparing itself for any eventuality.
"If the current trajectory holds, which is very difficult to ascertain because it could go in a number of different directions, I would suspect that there would be a further divide between the Sunni and the Shi’ite states and their supporters in the region and that’s going to have a massive spill over effect on neighboring countries," he said. "So what the GCC states are doing now is what they do best together: defense and homeland security."
Gulf officials have signalled that when it comes to Hezbollah, nothing is being ruled out.
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A man walks along a street filled with debris in Deir al-Zor, June 17, 2013.
Members of the Free Syrian Army react as they fire a rocket in Deir al-Zor, June 16, 2013.
A man belonging to forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad stands next to spent ammunition rounds in Tal El-Tineh village outside Aleppo, Syria, June 16, 2013.
Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad are seen in Tal El-Tineh village outside Aleppo, Syria, June 16, 2013.
Ammunition and an abandoned military truck belonging to forces loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad is seen after clashes in Raqqa province, eastern Syria, June 16, 2013.
Residents are seen as forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad enter Ain-Assan village outside Aleppo, Syria, June 15, 2013.