Turkish-Saudi alliance empowers Syrian rebels
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.