Turkish-Saudi alliance empowers Syrian rebels

Friday 05/06/2015

DUBAI - Turkey has become the in­dispensable nation in the struggle for the future of Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Riyadh in March proved to be a watershed moment, as the two most powerful Sunni states in the region came to align their military and political objectives on Syria.

In meeting with Saudi King Sal­man bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, Er­dogan signalled that Turkish stra­tegic depth in Syria would require enhanced cooperation with natu­ral Arab allies, such as Saudi Ara­bia and Arab Gulf states. Ankara sought to re-energise its Syrian support efforts as the Islamic State (ISIS) continues to operate unhin­dered by its setback against Kurd­ish forces in Kobane in northern Syria.

Erdogan’s visit to Riyadh ush­ered a new chapter of Turkish-Arab cooperation on mutual security concerns. Shortly after that trip, Syrian rebels embarked on a string of major battlefield victories in northern Syria against government forces and their allies, namely Ira­nian-backed Shia militias. By the end of May, they had captured al­most all of the north-western prov­ince of Idlib.

External policy differences be­tween Turkey, Saudi Arabia and its allies have been set aside and as pa­tronage networks aligned so have the once fractious Syrian Sunni re­bel forces. The designation of the Syrian rebel coalition as the “Con­quest Army” left little doubt of the ultimate objective: total victory.

While the United States and Western powers continue to main­tain an “Iraq first” doctrine in the war on ISIS, Turkey and Arab Gulf states insist that no solution to the threat posed by the terrorist group can prove sustainable with­out a simultaneous prioritisation of protecting the Syrian populace from the Syrian government’s con­tinued atrocities. Indeed, often overlooked by Western media and policymakers is the reality that Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis have borne the overwhelming majority of the brunt of fighting ISIS.

While Washington views Iranian-backed militias as indirect allies in the fight against ISIS, Turkey and Arab states have insisted that Sun­ni marginalisation and persecution at the hands of Iranian-sponsored militias and foreign fighters offers additional fuel for extremists. In Syria, this will entail empowering Sunni rebels to not only blunt and counter ISIS’s recent advances but to push back against the steady expansion of Hezbollah and Iran’s Shia militias in northern and southern Syria.

US policy equivocation on Syria paved a new role for Turkey to shape the outcome of the fight. By wisely focusing on convergent in­terests, the Turks and Gulf Cooper­ation Council (GCC) countries have established a de facto Sunni bloc as a counterweight to Iran’s regional network of Shia extremist militias.

The bene­fits are clear: In the newly liberated ter­ritories in Syria, ISIS has not been able to expand. As ISIS establishes its extremist version of Sunni Islam in the recently occupied eastern city of Tadmur, no such outcome has transpired in areas that have come un­der the control of the Conquest Army.

In agreeing to a joint role as security guaran­tors for a new Syrian state, Turkey and Saudi Arabia will prove to be the linchpin for defeat­ing ISIS. Shia militias and Kurdish forces advances against ISIS have proved pyrrhic at best and do not have the requisite “hold” force to prevent ISIS from re-infiltrating Sunni areas.

In contrast, Sunni rebels have successfully cleared ISIS from north-western Syria and most of Aleppo province and they remain the only viable force to strike the terrorist group in Syria.

Turkish advantage on the future trajectory of Syria is supported by its position as a NATO member and a host of the US military’s new “train and equip” pro­gramme for Syrian rebel forces. Turkey continues to insist that any military programme supporting Syrian rebels must pro­vide air cover when this force encoun­ters either ISIS or Assad’s forces. The Americans remain highly reluctant and worry that close air support to Syr­ian rebels would provoke Iran and lead to asymmetric retaliation against US personnel in the region.

However, Washing­ton would be wise to heed Ankara’s counsel: Without a Sunni force in Syria properly armed and supported by ena­blers such as coordinat­ed air strikes and intelli­gence, surveillance and reconnaissance as­sets, an air campaign against ISIS will prove indecisive. Indeed, reports have surfaced that US military personnel and experts are increasingly voicing frustra­tion over the White House’s micro­management of the air campaign against ISIS.

The Turkish-Arab position in supporting Sunnis as a bulwark against extremism has some back­ing within the American political establishment. Congressman Dun­can Hunter, R-Calif., recently wrote to US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter asking that the Pentagon consider directly arming Sunnis in western Iraq. A truly united cam­paign against ISIS requires associ­ating the fight against Assad with the fight against ISIS.

The Sunni Arab tribes in eastern Syria are the same in western Iraq. Rather than accepting de facto Ira­nian suzerainty in Iraq and parts of Syria, the United States would do well to look to the invigorated Turkish-Arab coalition for a sus­tainable solution to the crises.

Ibrahim Kalin, a close adviser to Erdogan has said, “Turkey and Saudi Arabia are committed to developing stronger bilateral rela­tions and will work together for regional peace, security and pros­perity.”

For Syria, this new Turkish clar­ity may offer hope that an alterna­tive solution to either ISIS or Ira­nian rule may be possible.