Turkish military attacks on US-aligned Syrian Kurdish groups and the possibility of Turkish and Saudi ground troops entering Syria could upend the fragile peace accord worked out by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) last week. The introduction of Turkish and Saudi ground forces would further risk a major escalation in the war and a whole new round of misery for the Syrian people.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Feb. 13 that Saudi Arabia was sending fighter jets to Incirlik Air Base and that both countries would consider potential ground operations in Syria. “This is something that could be desired but there is no plan. Saudi Arabia is sending planes and they said, 'If the necessary time comes for a ground operation, then we could send soldiers,'" Cavusoglu said. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, perhaps in response to a US request, clarified Feb. 14, "The kingdom's readiness to provide special forces to any ground operations in Syria is linked to a decision to have a ground component to this coalition against Daesh [Islamic State] in Syria — this US-led coalition — so the timing is not up to us."
US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has expressed frustration at the disappointing contributions of some of the US regional allies, including Turkey, to the US-led anti-IS coalition. Carter reportedly secured a commitment from Saudi Arabia on Feb. 11 to step up its contributions to the air campaign against IS, in addition to discussions of possible training and ground forces.
This column would support more substantial contributions of Saudi Arabia and Turkey to the air campaign against IS, but Turkish and Saudi intentions in Syria are not so neatly aligned with those of the United States in defeating the terrorist group, which US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper characterized in a Feb. 9 testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence as “the pre-eminent terrorist threat because of its self-described caliphate in Syria and Iraq, its branches and emerging branches in other countries, and its increasing ability to direct and inspire attacks against a wide range of targets around the world,”
Turkey’s priority in Syria is not the defeat of IS, however, but rather that of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan considers the PYD and YPG to be extensions of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), with which his government is fighting a bloody civil war in southeastern Turkey. The United States does not share Erdogan’s assessment of the PYD and YPG as terrorists and instead considers the Syrian Kurdish forces as among the most effective of the Syrian armed groups battling IS and not connected with al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra; as this column described last week, some of the anti-Assad groups backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia do have ties with Jabhat al-Nusra.
Metin Gurcan describes how pro-government Turkish media have been hyping a possible military intervention in Syria to prevent Syrian Kurdish forces from moving west of the Euphrates. This is the true intent of Turkey’s threats of intervention in Syria. Turkey has over the past few days been shelling Syrian Kurdish strongholds in northern Syria and demanding the YPG withdraw from the areas it has taken as a result of the intensified fighting around Aleppo.
Gurcan describes the Turkish government public relations campaign as a “surreal journey in trying to persuade the public that Turkey is winning, not losing, in Syria.” Despite the jingoism of the Turkish media hawks, the consequences of a Turkish intervention could best be described as both desperate and potentially catastrophic for Turkey, Syria and the region. Russia has already made clear that it would enforce a no-fly zone, so Turkey could face a confrontation with Russia. Other risks include the consequences of any intervention in Turkey’s own civil war with the PKK; the likelihood of taking on both the Syrian government and Syrian Kurdish forces; and potential clashes with the United States, which, along with Russia, coordinates military operations with the PYD and YPG.
Kadri Gursel explains that despite the bravado of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, the Turkish military may resist sending forces into Syria. Erdogan has implied that a military intervention might be the means to redress the free fall in Turkey’s Syria policy, saying, “We don’t want to repeat the Iraq mistake in Syria,” referring to the Turkish parliament’s rejection of a government authorization to send military forces into Iraq in 2003.
Gursel explained, “Having cornered himself in Syria, Erdogan again wants to use force to break free. And the only force he has at his disposal is the TSK [Turkish Armed Forces], which seems reluctant to be exploited for that purpose. In short, the resistance the TSK puts up to Erdogan is the only mainstay that Turkey presently has to avoid an adventure doomed to drag it into a catastrophe.”
One can only commend the restraint of US diplomats in managing Turkey’s increasingly disruptive approach to Syria policy, although the time may be coming when US policymakers may have to recognize Turkey’s role as an outlier in the efforts to end the war in Syria. Erdogan taunted the United States on Feb. 10, saying Washington was responsible for a “sea of blood” by backing the PYD and asking, “Are you with us or with this terrorist organization?" Erdogan then criticized the visit of Brett McGurk, the US envoy to the anti-IS coalition, with PYD officials in Kobani. "How can we trust you [the United States]? Who is your partner — the terrorists in Kobani or me?” This prompted what Cengiz Candar characterized as “one of the most powerful rebuffs American authorities have ever unleashed at a Turkish president” when State Department spokesman John Kirby said, “We do not see them as a terrorist organization and will continue supporting them.”
With regard to Saudi Arabia, its stepped-up commitment to the defeat of IS comes with a catch. Jubeir, speaking at the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 12, reaffirmed that Saudi Arabia believes defeating IS is directly connected to removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Jubeir said that Assad is the “single most effective magnet for extremists and terrorists” in the Middle East and overthrowing him is “our objective and we will achieve it.”
Jubeir’s statement should be a warning about the caveats and consequences of a possible Saudi military intervention in Syria. His assertion about the connection between Assad and IS seems, to put it politely, strained, and out of step with the assessment of the US intelligence community that IS is the “pre-eminent terrorist threat” in the world. Is Assad the “single most effective magnet” for IS’ occupation of Iraqi territory? Is Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a Shiite, also a “magnet” for IS fighters? Is Assad the “magnet” for IS’ expansion into Libya, or the group’s threats of further terrorist operations in the West? Why would a secular, nonsectarian post-Assad government be any less a “magnet” for IS?
On Feb. 12, Russian Foreign Miniser Sergey Lavrov called out “Jaish al-Islam,” which is backed by Saudi Arabia, in defense of Russian support for Syrian military operations in Aleppo: “The leader of Jaish al-Islam who has been eliminated, [Zahran] Alloush, made quite clear statements about the ideology of this movement. … He said that all the Levant should be cleared of dirt — meaning Alawites directly, who, as he said, are even more disloyal than Christians and Jews. And he said that his brothers are Jabhat al-Nusra fighters who he's fighting with against common enemies. So these are the guys who are now around Aleppo, at least on the western part. On the eastern part, with our help, the government forces have already unblocked this city and according to our data those who are fleeing this area are fighters who are just trying to escape. And let us not forget that all those who are now around Aleppo — that is, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam and other more moderate groups — are being supplied using the same route from one place in the territory of Turkey. So this factor should also be reckoned with, since the UN Security Council resolution that was adopted before Resolution 2254 prohibits any supplies that support terrorist groups.”
Ali Mamouri provided probably the most complete assessment of Alloush’s hate-filled ideology in Al-Monitor last month.
The increased focus of the threat from Jabhat al-Nusra was a positive outcome of the ISSG deliberations last week. In addition, the assessment of the US intelligence community that “al-Qaeda's affiliates have proven resilient and are positioned to make gains in 2016” should be a catalyst for more intensive military coordination with Russia against Jabhat al-Nusra. Asaad Hanna reports on the establishment of Sharia courts in Idlib and other areas outside of Syrian government control. This column has warned for more than two years of the mainstreaming of radical jihadist groups in Syria. It should be increasingly indefensible to engage in any form of relationship with al-Qaeda, even one or two steps removed.
Vitaly Naumkin writes, “The Kremlin does not believe that a successful campaign against IS — or any other terrorist group in Syria — or a cease-fire are possible without closing the Syrian-Turkish border. A river of foreign jihadis, arms and merchandise is flowing into Syria, with contraband oil traveling in the opposite direction. … Russia sees no reason why it should not target the positions of Jabhat al-Nusra, which is part of al-Qaeda and is using as a front an alliance with those whose ideological views can be considered moderate. Jabhat al-Nusra, just like IS, is among the main targets of the Russian air force. At the same time, Moscow confirms that it stands ready to reach an agreement with moderate opposition groups, but still has differences with the Western and regional ISSG partners over who can or cannot be categorized as terrorists.”
A trend to watch may be the increasing isolation of Saudi Arabia and Turkey in US and Russian efforts to end the war in Syria. The Wall Street Journal’s Jay Solomon reported this week that Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Jordan are in regular contact with Russia about its military operations in Syria. This is not to say that these countries are “on board” with all of Russia’s aims and objectives, but is yet another sign that Saudi Arabia and Turkey may be shifting to being outliers in a fragile and tentative effort to bringing the war to a close.