In Syria’s complex war, US and Russia are partners
Saudi anxiety appeared to hit another high just before the row with Iran over the January 2nd execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. That is not surprising. As the Saudis look around at the Middle East, they can see that they are increasingly on the defensive.
Nowhere is this truer than in Syria. The Russian military intervention reversed a trend that had seemed to favour Saudi Arabia and Turkey in their efforts to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Rebel groups, led by Jaysh al-Fatah, had made major gains in Idlib province and were threatening the Alawite heartland. There were signs the United States was shifting towards the establishment of a security zone along the Turkish border. And a firm principle of the international community was that Assad had to leave office before a political process could begin.
However, everything changed after Moscow entered the fray. The attacks in Paris by the Islamic State (ISIS) in November only hardened positions in the West, so that the focal point in Syria became far less about getting rid of Assad than eliminating Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his followers.
Worse, there was a growing perception that the Saudis and Turks were backing extremists in Syria, so that in the Western imagination jihadists, the Syrian opposition and Saudi Arabia and Turkey were all, simplistically, bunched into one.
At the same time, President Barack Obama’s administration, while condemning Russian actions, quickly began coordinating with Russia to avoid accidental confrontations between their militaries. Washington was careful to portray this as a necessary practical measure, not a sign of shared purpose.
However, in recent weeks, de facto cooperation seems to have increased. Media reports suggest Russian aircraft have assisted the advance of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Arab and non-Arab groups seeking to expel ISIS from Raqqa province. Yet the SDF is primarily backed by the United States and mistrusted by Turkey, which fears the PYD seeks to link Kurdish areas in north-eastern Syria with those around Afrin, north-west of Aleppo.
The SDF is also regarded as a threat by the Saudi- and Turkish-backed Jaysh al-Fatah, one of whose main components is, or was, the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra. Jaysh al-Fatah and other Syrian rebel groups worry that if the SDF, or anyone else, cut their Azaz supply line to Turkey, they could be surrounded in the Aleppo area. Russia is mainly helping the Syrian Army and the Americans are helping the SDF but the priorities of both leave Saudi-backed rebels vulnerable.
To the Saudis, this is a sign of a worrying American shift. Bad news often comes in pairs: In December, US Secretary of State John Kerry signalled another concession when the United States said Assad could remain in power for a time during a Syrian transition, no longer conditioning peace talks on his departure.
According to a UN plan reached in November in Vienna, talks between the Syrian regime and recognised opposition groups are to begin on January 29th, leading towards the formation of a transitional governing body. This body would organise presidential and parliamentary elections by August 2017. A leaked internal Obama administration timeline indicates that Assad may be gone by March 2017.
The Saudis have no faith in such deadlines. All they can see is that the United States and Russia are in agreement to let Assad stay for now to prevent a void in Syria and that US President Barack Obama has done nothing to prevent Russian bombing of their Syrian allies. Riyadh and Ankara have moved closer but increasingly seem to be alone.
Nor is Arab solidarity heartening. Among the Arab states, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Algeria and Lebanon are either supportive of Assad or profoundly worried about a victory by extremists in Syria. This has restricted the kingdom’s ability to persevere, all the more so as this dominant Arab view reflects similar unease in Washington.
With Riyadh’s Yemen policy in a shambles and its Syria policy gradually being dismantled by Russia and the complicated calculations and maneuverings of all parties in Syria, no wonder the Saudis are nervous.
They see their main regional foe, Iran, gaining in both countries. In that context, Nimr’s execution could have been a way of tightening Sunni ranks and trying to place the kingdom once again at their forefront. But the Syrian war has caused too much damage and everyone is eager for a settlement. If keeping Assad for a time is the price to pay, so be it, seems to be the message from the outside. The Saudi and Turkish desire to fight on until Assad is forced out pleases nobody. Riyadh’s increasingly frantic behaviour betrays that they sense this.