February 17, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: A Regional Showdown in Syria

• Turkish and Saudi Arabian officials have stepped back from their proposals earlier in February to send troops into northern Syria

• The challenges to Turkish and Saudi interests have not become any less acute; Turkey’s focus on the Kurds has found no international support, and its threats to invade Syria are unlikely to translate into action

• Saudi Arabia has gone all in against Assad and Iran, but the Syrian army, aided by Russia’s air campaign, continues to maintain momentum

• The manner of Assad’s victory may not be entirely in Iranian interests; Russia’s military contributions at such a pivotal point may render Iranian influence in Syria secondary.


Turkey’s original objectives in Syria’s civil war—to extend its regional influence and ensure the swift removal of Bashar al-Assad—now seem a distant dream. Far from emerging triumphant from the current mess in the Middle East, Turkey appears to be the region’s biggest loser. At home it has seen a deadly resumption of civil strife as it battles the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) with a military campaign that has made it hard to distinguish pictures of the worst-affected Turkish cities from the urban desolation in neighboring Syria. Abroad it has found no good response to a string of setbacks and a steady erosion of its influence. 

Seventeen years after the capture and imprisonment of the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, the considerable effort by the Turkish government to accommodate Kurdish aspirations within a stronger Turkish identity appears to have come to nothing. Furthermore, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria and its military wing, the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG)—which is a sister organization to the PKK—have made steady progress towards establishing a Kurdish-controlled strip all along Syria’s northern border, with only the town of Azaz holding out. President Erdogan faces a dual disaster.

To compound their problems, the Turks now find themselves attempting to stop further Kurdish advances towards Azaz by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a rebel group of Arabs and Kurds that is supported by the United States and includes the YPG. The Turks have been shelling SDF positions with long-range artillery and on February 15, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stated that Turkey would make the ‘necessary intervention’ to prevent the fall of Azaz. But his options are very limited and are further complicated by the fact that both the U.S. and the Russians support the YPG; the U.S. because it is an effective force against the so-called Islamic State, the Russians because it is an effective force against other rebels

While President Obama has asked the Turks to stop shelling the Kurds, but has offered no additional ground forces, the Russians are likely to go further. They are still enraged by—and exploiting—Turkey’s downing of a Russian bomber last November, and are now providing air support to the YPG—suggesting there may be Russian liaison officers collocated with YPG forces. Russia may well gamble that it can threaten to meet any ‘necessary intervention’ with an ‘appropriate response’ without triggering a broader Western engagement, banking on Turkish concern that further Russian casualties would quickly escalate the already tense bilateral relationship. Significantly, Turkish Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz said on February 14 that Turkey had no intention of sending in ground forces.

But without some direct action, it is hard to see the situation turning in Turkey’s favor. The only possible ally that Turkey might find to support an intervention is Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have already sent airplanes to the Turkish base at Incirlik, also used by the U.S., but so far no more than four have arrived—far too few to support a push over the border.  Furthermore, the Saudis have clarified their offer to send special forces into Syria, saying that this would only be (a largely symbolic offering) in support of a U.S.-led operation. Without clear U.S. backing it is highly unlikely that the Saudis would risk their aircraft in Russian-controlled airspace in support of a Turkish campaign to beat up the Kurds.

Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia also faces major problems. For all its arsenal of military equipment and deep pockets, it has had no marked success in its Yemen campaign and has seen no progress against Iranian influence in Syria. Foreign Minister Adel el-Jubeir gave no ground last week when he announced that Assad’s removal remained Saudi Arabia’s objective ‘and we will achieve it.’ A climb down would be easier if the Saudi authorities had not stirred up domestic opinion to see the fight against Assad and Iran as a fight for the future. By making the contest sectarian in nature, it has become far harder for Saudi Arabia to claim victory and move on. 

This is unfortunate, as in some ways, Iran could be ready to calm things down. Although Iran enabled Assad to survive at a critical time earlier in the war through its proxy militias and Hizballah, Russia is enabling him to win. Russia’s utterly ruthless air campaign, which included the destruction of five hospitals and two schools on Monday, will drive rebels and the population that supports them into Turkey and Europe, exacerbating the refugee crisis. This will likely accelerate peace talks that will see Russia attempting to dictate terms behind the scenes. Iran’s influence will therefore be reduced in Damascus, and its future interests put at the mercy of Russian policy. It would be far better for Iran to have a regional carve-up between known enemies than an unpredictable proxy struggle in a revived Cold War, as described by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev last Saturday. For all players in Syria, the future is increasingly opaque.


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