While the war in Yemen remains inconclusive, Saudi Arabia is escalating its intervention in Syria. Unlike the Yemeni theater, where the Saudis are the largest military force, the Syrian battleground will be more complex for Riyadh. The Saudis will be partnering with Turkey, and Riyadh and Ankara are not in complete agreement. Iran’s support for the Syrian government will also complicate matters, as will U.S. nervousness about jihadists filling any vacuum left in Damascus if the government falls. Moreover, the U.S.-led coalition operations against the Islamic State in Syria will not make the situation simpler.
Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have reportedly agreed on a deal to greatly enhance support for rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s government forces. Separately, AFP reported that Syrian opposition forces had said the Saudi kingdom wants to unite most of Syria’s rebel factions and is organizing a gathering in mid-June to this end. Meanwhile, Turkish and Qatari foreign ministers are meeting to discuss Syria and other regional issues.
The Turks and the Qataris have long been allies, supporting each other in Syria and across the region. But the Saudis joining this group is a development that began when the new monarch, Saudi King Salman, took office back in late January. Earlier this week we published a report outlining how Turkey and Saudi Arabia may cooperate tactically, but they are strategic competitors for leadership of the Middle East.
In the context of Syria, Riyadh needs Ankara because Turkey’s long border with Syria gives it a great deal of influence in the Levantine country. Likewise, Turkey knows it cannot act in an Arab country without Saudi Arabia being on board with the plan, especially since the kingdom’s financial muscle enables it to influence many of the factions fighting in Syria. This mutual dependence does not make for more than an uneasy alignment because of the divergent natures of the region’s two major Sunni players.
For now, though, the shared goal of toppling al Assad has Riyadh and Ankara cooperating, at least on unifying the rebels. Given the rebels’ fractured nature, the key role al Qaeda’s Syrian branch Jabhat al-Nusra played in rebel victories, the Islamic State factor and the involvement of Kurdish separatist forces, Turkey will have to take a more assertive military role at some point. To this end, Turkey has even talked of creating “safe zones” — or sending in forces — in northern Syria. Turkey is the only regional power that can insert troops into Syria. But in terms of air support, Turkey could collaborate with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf states — especially the United Arab Emirates — and Jordan, which is escalating its involvement in its northern neighbor.
Another factor that has brought the two competing Sunni powers together is their shared frustration with U.S. unwillingness to take decisive action in Syria. From the U.S. perspective, the regional players ought to take the lead. At the same time, Washington has been wary of any plans to create a situation where the al Assad government falls and Syria becomes a vast ungoverned space that transnational jihadists are best positioned to exploit, which is precisely what happened in eastern Syria when the Islamic State declared its so-called caliphate.
In the light of the rebel victories in the northern province of Idlib, it is quite reasonable that at some point Turkish-Saudi-Qatari assistance will enable the rebels to topple the al Assad government. But such developments raise the question of what happens the next day in the minds of the rebels’ state sponsors. They are planning to meet next month to specifically discuss what happens when Damascus is in the hands of the rebels.
In order to cooperate, Qatar finally convinced Saudi Arabia that to effectively combat Iran’s growing influence in the region, Riyadh needed to ease its opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood. This stance has allowed Saudi Arabia to work with Turkey, which, along with Qatar, has been among the main state backers of the mainstream Islamist movement. Riyadh has decided to prioritize fighting Tehran and its allies for the time being. But it does not mean Saudi Arabia is now embracing the Muslim Brotherhood. It cannot, because the movement is antithetical to Saudi religious and political foundations.
This issue is critical when it comes to a future Syrian government, which the West, the Turks and the Qataris would want to be democratic. Moreover, Ankara and Doha want Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamists to dominate the new Syrian state. Riyadh does not. Such a state would only undermine the Saudis on the home front, who are going through a delicate transition.
However, most of the Syrian rebels are of one Salafist-jihadist persuasion or another, and getting them to accept a post-al Assad democratic setup will be extremely difficult. This difficulty may appear to be to Saudi Arabia’s advantage, but Riyadh has no alternative political model to offer either. Worse, jihadist forces will exploit this dispute, and the mess will pale in comparison to what happened when Islamist insurgents toppled the Marxist government in Afghanistan in 1992 — a process that catalyzed the growth of transnational jihadism.
And while Saudi Arabia and Turkey try to sort out how they will manage their joint aims in Syria, they also have to worry about the proxy war with Iran. For Tehran, losing Syria is unacceptable outcome.