In a heated exchange at the United Nations on April 21, Riyadh’s representative, Abdallah al-Mouallimi, made a thinly veiled reference to the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen before saying that Saudi Arabia will spare no effort to also help the Syrian people. This provoked a sharp response from Syria’s ambassador to the UN, Bashar Jaafari, who accused the Saudis of “cultivating a culture of sectarian bloodshed in the region,” and promised that any hand that touches Syria would be “cut off.”
The diplomatic spat comes as speculation intensifies about a Saudi-led push to weaken or destroy President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus. Since late 2014—once the immediate shock of the Islamic State’s summer offensive in Iraq and eastern Syria had subsided—the Syrian conflict has been in a strange state of suspense. The diplomatic atmosphere is swirling with conferences and plans of uncertain value, while actors on all sides seem to be waiting for a decisive shift on the ground.
In mid- to late 2014, Assad seemed to be ascendant; he had cemented his hold on central Syria and was moving to encircle Aleppo in the north. But these offensives stalled and rebel attacks chipped away at the army, as Assad struggled with a failing economy, diminishing foreign support, the rise of militias, and a dangerous dearth of reliable fighters. Flow turned to ebb, and in early 2015 the fortunes on the battlefield seem to have been reversed once again, with rebels on the offensive in the Idlib-Hama region in the west and in southern Syria.
Reconciling the Rebel Backers
In January 2015, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia passed away and was succeeded by his half brother Salman. This offered the opportunity for a fresh start in regional diplomacy. In the same month, Iran-backed rebels ousted the government in Yemen, provoking a Saudi-led military intervention. Meanwhile, the Iranian nuclear negotiations moved ahead. On April 2, a preliminary deal with Tehran was struck that envisioned a final agreement before June 30, which would lead to at least a partial lifting of international sanctions. This caused great concern in Saudi Arabia and among other conservative Sunni governments locked in conflict with Iran and its allies. It may even have helped to bridge the rivalry between the two main blocs of Syrian rebel backers, with Turkey and Qatar in one camp and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the other.
In early March, King Salman received Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Riyadh, after years of tense relations between their two countries. Among the topics discussed: how to increase “support to the Syrian opposition in a way that aims at yielding results,” according to Turkish news reports. By the end of that month, Syrian rebels had captured the city of Idlib, with many speculating that this was the first tangible result of a new Saudi-Turkish understanding.
Days later, the rebels took the Nasib border crossing between Syria and Jordan. It had long been within reach, but only then did they receive the necessary go-ahead from their international backers. Not unrelatedly, Jordan is about to launch a new security doctrine referred to as Defense in Depth, and on April 21, the Jordanian government announced that it will seek the establishment of “safe areas” inside the Syrian border.
According to a report in the Huffington Post, the rapprochement between Riyadh and Ankara is being brokered by Qatar, a traditional rival of Saudi Arabia that has recently tried to mend fences and a close ally of Turkey. (Turkey and Qatar recently signed laws to allow for the mutual stationing of troops on each other’s territory.) According to the Huffington Post, the end goal of these talks is to organize a direct military intervention in Syria on the Yemen model: “Turkey would provide ground troops, supported by Saudi Arabian air strikes, to assist moderate Syrian opposition fighters against Assad's regime.”
Turkey’s parliament has already preapproved operations in Syria, should the government see a need for them. Although Erdoğan has been reluctant to join the international coalition against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, he says that with support from the United States and a clear commitment to take down Assad, Turkey would be willing to establish safe zones for Syrian rebels and refugees along the border, even at the cost of sending in ground troops. Now, citing a source involved in the talks, the Huffington Post notes that according to one source, if Turkey and Saudi Arabia come to an agreement, “their intervention in Syria would go forward whether or not the U.S. offered support.”
Many Obstacles to Direct Intervention
There are many, however, with an interest in overstating the threat to Assad, and there are enormous obstacles to any overt military intervention in Syria.
Obviously, such an operation would require close coordination and trust, but the rapprochement between Ankara and Riyadh rests on shaky foundations. Witness, for example, the Turkish outrage this week when Egypt’s former president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, was sentenced to twenty years in prison. Morsi had excellent relations with Turkey and Qatar, while Egypt’s new ruler, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, took power with support from Saudi Arabia and remains dependent on Emirati and Saudi financial aid.
The United States is still opposed to the idea of a clear-cut military victory in Syria, fearing that if the rebels get too much support they will wipe out the country’s remaining state institutions (not least because Assad seems determined to bring them down with him) and finalize Syria’s Somalization. The lack of a functioning opposition leadership could also invite Islamist extremists, already significantly implanted among the rebels, to fill the void.
Given that the United States remains largely focused on fixing Iraq and combating the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, a strategy of fully fledged intervention in Syria would run up against U.S. objections almost immediately. And it’s far from obvious that these states could sustain such an intervention without U.S. approval and support.
Turkey: Lacking Popular Support
The Turkish military is one of the region’s most powerful armed forces, but apart from a quixotic occupation of Northern Cyprus, it has mostly been deployed inside Turkey against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK—rarely displaying any great finesse when it comes to the art of counterinsurgency. (Human Rights Watch reports that at the height of the war in the mid-1990s, the Turkish army had burned or razed some 3,000 Kurdish villages.)
The PKK is present in Syria as well, in the guise of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, and its militia forces, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). But even if a Turkish intervention wasn’t diverted into war with Kurdish rebels, it would be a risky business. An often-cited reason for Turkey’s failure to control the rebel groups it sponsors in northern Syria is its lack of Arabic-speaking military and intelligence operatives. Its capacity has no doubt improved since 2011, and these deficits can be further mitigated by adding Arabic speakers from other countries, Syrian rebels and Saudis among them. But make no mistake: a Turkish force would be on foreign soil in Syria, with all that entails.
Political factors may prove even harder to overcome. The army itself is entwined with the political game, and the past decade saw repeated staff changes and purges in the Turkish top brass, as Erdoğan sought to bring the military establishment under civilian control. In addition, there is no apparent support among ordinary Turks for intervention in Syria. To the contrary, Erdoğan’s Syria policies have been widely criticized as too adventurous and costly.
Given that the country is headed for general elections on June 7, after which Erdoğan hopes to seek the aid of a PKK-linked Kurdish party to increase the powers of his presidential office, it seems highly unlikely that he would want to send ground troops into Syria now. Indeed, in the view of Turkey expert Aaron Stein, Erdoğan’s supporters must almost certainly “steer clear of any military operations that could decrease their public support for the time being.”
Saudi Arabia: Limited Capabilities
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman doesn’t have to worry about elections, and many Saudis would undoubtedly relish a war on Bashar al-Assad. But even though the Saudi military is one of the world’s most lavishly funded, decades of royal corruption and overreliance on foreign protection has created a force that is embarrassingly inept at actually making war. (In 2009, when Saudi Arabia moved its army into Yemen to battle the Houthi rebels, who were far weaker than they are today, its performance was distinctly mediocre.)
Restricting Saudi Arabia’s role to an aerial intervention makes more sense, but although the Royal Saudi Air Force is well equipped, it is also bogged down in Yemen. Even though Riyadh declared an end to the aerial intervention on Tuesday, air strikes have continued on a lesser scale.
Previous Gulf Arab air wars have been against ground forces without serious antiaircraft capabilities, including the current operation in Yemen, the Emirati bombings in Libya, and their participation in the international coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. In the latter case, the combined air forces of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar were only able to add marginally to a U.S. air campaign that itself made only incremental progress against the Islamic State. Attacking Bashar al-Assad would be a lot riskier, because he still has an air force backed up by battered but far from toothless missile defenses.
Options on the Table
All this means that without U.S. backing and approval, a large-scale Arab and Turkish military intervention in Syria isn’t likely to happen, because it would change too little and the participants would get stuck too fast and too hard.
But there are many other ways that these governments could cooperate to increase pressure on Assad. They could increase funding and training. They could lift restrictions on the rebel groups they fund and allow them to move in new directions, as seems to have happened with the Nasib crossing. They could provide greater quantities and more advanced weapons (bearing in mind that the United States draws a line at antiaircraft missiles). They could send special forces into Syria to aggressively assist rebels of their choosing. They could also attempt a more limited direct intervention, restricted in terms of geographic scope and/or time frame. With Jordan now proposing a “safe zone” in the south of Syria, it’s worth watching what comes out of Ankara on this topic.
Most of all, they could coordinate their own diplomatic and military efforts to limit the fragmentation among rebel groups on the ground and dissidents in exile.
Something of that sort may already be going on. In the exile opposition, rumors abound about an upcoming conference, perhaps in Riyadh, that would set up a new political body. Meanwhile, Aleppo’s largest insurgent coalition, known as the Levant Front, has suddenly announced its own dissolution, and rebel commanders are also busily holding meetings in Turkey and elsewhere. Islam Army head Zahran Alloush recently slipped out of his stronghold east of Damascus to appear at a meeting of Syrian Islamic scholars in Turkey. The real purpose of his visit seems to have been other, secret meetings. According to the well-connected Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, “the visit of Zahran Alloush to Turkey removes the last obstacle for Saudi-Turkish-Qatar cooperation in Syria,” while Alloush’s cousin Mohammed Alloush (head of the Political Office of the Revolutionary Command Council, a large rebel coalition that includes the Islam Army) has said that the Turkey trip “aims to unite the efforts of revolutionaries on the ground in all of Syria, not just in the Damascus countryside.”
How much of the movement among the rebels is coordinated is open to question. Commanders are probably in many cases positioning themselves, jockeying for influence, and trying to show off their military strength and ability to work with others, in the hope of being selected for a role in the new order they believe will emerge from the Saudi-Turkish talks. As ever, so much remains unclear. But with both rebels and regime now deeply dependent on foreign support, any shift in regional alignments is sure to produce some form of change on the ground in Syria. Something is being cooked up in all these meetings, and we’re about to find out what.