Originally commissioned February 2016
Seeing its proxies facing defeat in Syria, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are pushing for an intervention in Syria, nominally to attack Daesh, but Saudi Arabia will not do so alone. In the event of an incursion, Saudi Arabia seek to establish a foothold in eastern or northern Syria to shift the balance of power. The proximity of Iranian and Saudi forces holds potential for conflict, however, neither side, nor the great powers, want a direct confrontation. Indeed, an incursion is unlikely to occur without an agreement to demarcate theatres of engagement and effectively to carve up Syria, meaning 2016 may see an end to the conflict in its current form. However, Turkey, because of its frustration with the Kurdish issue, may yet take unilateral action, invading the Jarabulus corridor, with possible Saudi support, massively escalating the conflict.
· Seeing their proxies facing defeat, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are considering creating a safe zone in Syria, to gain leverage over the outcome of the Syrian conflict.
· If done in cooperation with all parties to the conflict, this could lead to peace, however, if Turkey invades unilaterally, this could lead to a dangerous escalation.
Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar have all invested a lot of money and effort into supporting groups fighting the Assad regime in Syria. Last year, an understanding between the three countries saw gains for their proxies on the ground under the Jaish al-Fatah umbrella, the cohesion of which has since deteriorated. These fighting groups’ gains have been dramatically reversed over the last months, mainly by the introduction of Russia air power in support of the Assad regime, and partly due to Iranian ground forces and Hezbollah fighters.
The groups supported by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar are now facing near-complete defeat on the battlefield. Crucially, rebel-held Aleppo, Syria’s largest city before the conflict, is almost surrounded by pro-regime forces and all supply lines to the Turkish border have been cut. The fall of Aleppo would mark a serious, potentially fatal blow to the opposition in its current form and would mark a change in the form of the conflict; indeed, opposition groups are reportedly abandoning conventional battle field confrontations in favor of guerrilla tactics. Now, Saudi Arabia and Turkey in particular have suggested they would send troops into Syria. This would mark a significant escalation in the conflict.
While Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar have on occasion cooperated, they each follow their own agendas, and for much of the conflict their lack of coordination has hampered anti-government forces’ progress. All three had been hoping for a Sunni-dominated government in Syria, sympathetic to their interests. However, they have all backed different proxies, vying for influence and pursuing other side-aims. Support has also come from private individuals and interests in these countries, with varying levels of state complicity or support, such as Turkish nationalists fighting with ethnic Turkmen groups. The three countries’ mixed record on cooperation over support for their proxies does not bode well for a strong coalition.
For Saudi Arabia, in particular, the conflict forms part of its wider ongoing struggle for regional influence with Iran. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia is involved in putting down an Iranian-supported insurgency, at great cost. In Lebanon, the two countries vie for influence, and consequently Lebanon recently failed to elect a president for the 36th time, consecutively. In Bahrain, an ally of Saudi Arabia, Iran is accused of supporting anti-government protests among the Shia community. Victory for Iran’s ally, the Assad regime, in Syria would be a significant loss for Saudi Arabia, as it would considerably strengthen Iran’s sphere of influence.
Russia’s long-term objective in supporting the Assad regime is to maintain a government in Syria favorable to its interests. However, with its economy collapsing, Russia is also keen to withdraw from Syria as quickly as is viable, and not to be drawn back in again to suppress any future insurgencies. A sustainable peace, which maintains Alawite strength but makes concessions to Sunni factions, might accomplish Russia’s goals. Russia might even see a Saudi incursion as helpful in this regard, as long it sets the terms. The Assad regime, assessing that Russia will support it no matter what, given how much it has invested, may however be tempted to ignore Russia’s wishes and pursue total victory.
Egypt and Bahrain, two countries in Saudi Arabia’s posited Syria coalition and who support the Saudi intervention in Yemen, have strong relations with Russia. The Bahraini premier, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, met with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, in Russia a few days after the Saudis announced their plan. Al-Khalifa presented Putin with a sword made from Damascus steel, as a symbol of friendship. Egypt, since Abel Fattah el-Sisi’s coup, has improved ties with Russia, with Russia providing military support and building a nuclear power plant in Egypt.
Saudi-Russian ties have soured over Syria. Last week, Russian and Iranian media reported that King Salman of Saudi Arabia will be visiting Putin in Russia in March, although Saudi media denied this, a possible snub. In any case, Saudi Arabia maintains, if nothing else, good economic ties with Russia. There is obvious room for dialogue between these various actors and it is conceivable that Russia would permit a limited incursion by Saudi’s coalition into Syria to end the conflict.
The US called for Gulf countries in Syria to do more against Daesh, likely to appease Hawks at home, but the US fears the Saudi plan would drag it into further conflict. The US seeks a peaceful end to the conflict, but its main priority is destroying Daesh. Fearing escalation, the US is unlikely to support a Saudi or Turkish ground incursion. Above all, the US is pushing for a diplomatic resolution, with little success thus far, as the Assad regime and allies continue to dictate facts on the ground.
Saudi Arabia has declared it is willing to send troops into Syria for a number of reasons. The first set of aims is psychological: to pressure the Assad regime and its allies into considering negotiating to avoid escalation; to counter the US assertion it is not doing its part; and to embarrass the US into more action, although this last is unlikely to be effective. The second is to garner support for an actual incursion by showing its willingness. By entering Syria, Saudi Arabia would then be better positioned to provide support to its proxies countering Iran. Saudi Arabia and its proxies would have a stronger position in negotiations over the future of Syia. If it carried out an incursion under the guise of attacking Daesh and captured territory in eastern Syria, it could then establish a foothold in the country.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia is seeking to position itself as the military head of the Sunni Arab world, by forming an ‘Islamic Alliance’. Saudi Arabia has been following a more assertive foreign policy since King Salman’s son became foreign minister, referred to as the Salman doctrine. This stems partly from the Saudi fear that the US, while it will defend Saudi Arabia’s sovereignty, may not be proactive in defending its interests regionally. Thus, it seeks to strengthen its regional military position.
Saudi Arabia will likely not enter Syria alone, nor without US support. Saudi Arabia would be unlikely to expose its forces to a direct confrontation with Iranian forces, especially if Russian air support is still present. In addition, with its forces embedded in Yemen, it might be difficult for Saudi Arabia to open and maintain a second front. The Saudi Armed Forces number over 200,000 but of these many are needed for domestic defense. In Yemen it has relied largely on irregulars and has had limited success. However, if its proxies’ situation worsens even further or if Turkey was to take unilateral action, Saudi Arabia might still send forces in support. Saudi Arabia has sent its most advanced war planes to Turkey’s southern Incirlik air base and the two countries have established a ‘military coordination body’.
While some elements in the Turkish government deny it, others have been signaling that Turkey is considering entering Syria in the area being referred to as the Jarabulus corridor. This is a stretch of disputed territory, dominated mostly by anti-government forces running between Kurdish-held territory, running from the Turkish border southwards to just north of Aleppo. Turkey’s reasons for considering such a move are three-fold: its claimed reason, the least important, to create a safe zone for refugees within Syria, now that Turkey is at full capacity. The second reason would be to lift the siege on Aleppo or at least provide support to its proxies there. The third and most important reason would be to prevent the westward expansion of pro-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are poised to connect the self-declared Kurdish cantons of Saffrin and Kobani, thereby creating an uninterrupted Kurdish state on the Turkish border.
Tolerating a Kurdish state on its border would be politically difficult for any Turkish government. Such an incursion however, without the backing of the US or the UN, would be costly for Turkey and could trigger a serious escalation, exposing Turkish forces to Russian air power. As Turkish demands for the US to stop supporting the SDF continue to go unequivocally ignored and seeing its proxies routed, Ankara may still consider a unilateral offensive. The Turkish government continues to employ heated rhetoric amid shelling of SDF positions, and reports of Turkish troops massing on the border and mine fields being cleared in preparation for an advance.
Turkey has been seeking to force the SDF to withdraw from Mennagh air base that they recently captured; instead, the SDF changed the name of the air base to honor the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), fighting Turkey, a clear provocation. On the same day, a bomb attack blamed on the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the dominant faction in the SDF, against a military convoy in Ankara killed 28 people. The SDF continue to advance with Russian air support in areas Turkey declared ‘off limits’. Turkey’s threat to enter Syria are more concrete and immediate than Saudi Arabia’s.
If an incursion were to take place with US support and Russia’s consent, this may well spell the end of the Syrian conflict in its current form. Saudi and other Sunni forces would capture and hold territory from Daesh and create a safe zone for the opposition, who could then go to the negotiating table with greater leverage, increasing the likelihood of a sustainable agreement. However, if Turkey and/or Saudi Arabia see the regime position progressing too far, or if Turkey becomes too frustrated with Kurdish advances, they may take action without consent, leading to a dangerous escalation.
Moreover, even if an incursion was to take place with the consent, tacit or otherwise, of Russia, it could still lead to a massive escalation. While Saudi Arabia has backed away from direct confront with Iran, it would likely be tempted, once in Syria, to use its foothold to undermine Iranian influence in some way. Moreover, any coalition is likely to be complicated by different countries’ varying agendas. This could see a resurgence of the conflict but with outside powers even further embedded than before.