May 8, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Dangerous Uncertainty of Syria

• Syria remains a place where predictions go to die, with a bewildering array of actors and interests and an endless catalog of advances and withdrawals

• Reports of more substantial cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Turkey in support of a new rebel coalition in northern Syria highlight a renewed regional determination to overthrow the Assad regime, though the details remain unclear

• Also unclear is what role the U.S. will play beyond its slow-paced training of vetted ‘moderate’ rebels in both Turkey and Jordan; establishing and maintaining the no-fly zone requested by Saudi Arabia and Turkey is no small matter

• Adding to the many moving parts, Hizballah has announced an imminent large cross-border operation in Qalamoun, fighting al-Nusra, now the dominant member of the rebel coalition.


Despite the allocation of funds by Congress as long ago as last September, U.S.-led training of vetted rebels has only recently begun in Jordan after a screening process that accepted only about ten percent of the close to 4,000 who applied. Similarly small numbers are likely to be trained in Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Even so, they will only be tasked to fight the Islamic State. In the meantime, the announcement of increased cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Turkey in support of a rebel coalition against the Assad regime makes public an agreement that has existed for some time, even though the details remain obscure. A conflict that was already complicated has become even more so, with so many moving parts that near and long-term predictions are proving as misleading as they are informative.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey long ago made the calculation that getting rid of the Assad regime was worth the risk of supporting and arming rebel groups that included violent extremists such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. Both countries believe that a rising tide will lift all boats, and that a newly empowered rebel coalition will be able to sideline and marginalize the extremists who have had a leading role up to now. Recent and sizable victories in the north against the Assad forces, matched by determined resistance and the recapture of territory in the south, have demonstrated increased joint fighting capabilities by the alliance known as Jaysh al-Fatah (the Army of Conquest). Seeking to capitalize on this momentum, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are likely to increase their support for the rebels now that they have announced their joint policy initiative.

What both countries very much want is a no-fly zone in northern Syria, from which the rebels can safely launch attacks and resupply, and that can offer protection to displaced civilians. But given the considerable demands that maintaining such a zone would entail, it is unlikely that Turkey and Saudi Arabia could do so without U.S. support. Up to now the U.S. has opposed such a zone, fearing entanglement in a conflict tailor-made for entanglement. Increased domestic concern over terrorism after the Garland attack will likely further dissuade U.S. officials from prioritizing the removal of Assad over the suppression of the Islamic State and al-Nusra. Given continued U.S. opposition, Turkey and Saudi Arabia may force the pace by acting on their own, but this will not happen before President Obama’s summit meeting with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders next week. Talk of Turkish ground forces moving into Syria has also become a hot topic in Ankara, though possibly more in the context of the forthcoming Turkish elections in June than as a seriously considered military option.

For its part, Hizballah has decided that al-Nusra is such a threat to itself and to the Assad regime that it has announced it will initiate a major escalation of fighting in the border region of Qalamoun. Hizballah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, publicly stated that the goal of the offensive is the defeat of al-Nusra in that area, despite the opposition of the Lebanese government, which fears getting dragged into the conflict. The potential for retaliatory strikes by al-Nusra inside Lebanon is indeed high.

The meeting of the U.S. and the GCC will take place on May 13-14 and should provide additional insight into the areas of agreement and disagreement between the two sides over Yemen as well as to how to move ahead in Syria. But the question of how much removing Assad will cost will likely go unanswered. Adding to complications, Russia and Iran continue to view support for the Assad regime, with or without Assad himself, as essential to their national interests. It is unclear how much more these two countries will do to protect Assad. Indeed, the only thing that is clear about the entire conflict is that the Syrian people are suffering immensely and will suffer more before the conflict inevitably ends. How and when it will end is dangerously unpredictable, as is the war's long aftermath.


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