Saudi Arabia and Turkey Rejoin Hands in Syria

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Saudi Arabia and Turkey Rejoin Hands in Syria

U.S. President Barack Obama walks with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud during his trip to Riyadh January 27, 2015. (Photo: Saudi Press Agency)

A recent Associated Press report filed makes clear that the recent successes of Syria’s rebel Army of Conquest (JAF, after its Arabic name, Jaysh al-Fatah) have been enabled by a thaw in relations between two US allies in the region: Saudi Arabia and Turkey. From the report:

The two countries—one a democracy, the other a conservative kingdom—have for years been at odds over how to deal with Assad, their common enemy. But mutual frustration with what they consider American indecision has brought the two together in a strategic alliance that is driving recent rebel gains in northern Syria, and has helped strengthen a new coalition of anti-Assad insurgents, Turkish officials say.

Those two countries, along with a third US ally, Qatar, have been providing support to the JAF despite two key US concerns. First and foremost, Washington is very concerned that the JAF includes the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. Indeed, Nusra’s fighters seem to have been at the forefront of most of its advances in Syria’s Idlib Province in recent months. US officials are also concerned that the JAF’s war aims, which center on toppling Bashar al-Assad and possibly replacing him with an Islamist government, will conflict with and complicate America’s fight to degrade and ultimately defeat the Islamic State (ISIS or IS):

That is provoking concern in the United States, which does not want rebel groups, including the al-Qaida linked Nusra Front, uniting to topple Assad. The Obama administration worries that the revived rebel alliance could potentially put a more dangerous radical Islamist regime in Assad’s place, just as the U.S. is focused on bringing down the Islamic State group. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issues, said the administration is concerned that the new alliance is helping Nusra gain territory in Syria.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been at odds for some time over the fallout from 2011’s Arab Spring movement and, specifically, the status of the Muslim Brotherhood around the Middle East. Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been a strong supporter of the Brotherhood, and Ankara was strongly opposed to the July 2013 coup that forced Egypt’s elected Brotherhood government from office. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has had a rocky relationship with the Brotherhood for decades. Riyadh sent billions of dollars in aid to Cairo after the 2013 coup, and went so far as to declare the Brotherhood a terrorist group in March of last year.

However, that anti-Brotherhood position began to soften under new Saudi King Salman. In February, then-Saudi Foreign Minister Saud bin Faisal told a Saudi journalist that “we do not have a problem with the Muslim Brotherhood; our problem is with a small group affiliated to this organization.” This change in policy may have been motivated by a desire to improve relations with Turkey in order to gain Ankara’s support for efforts to counter what the Saudis perceive to be Iran’s growing regional presence. Tehran’s support for the (weakened but still quite viable) Assad government is one manifestation of that regional presence. Another, at least according to the Saudis, is Iranian support for Yemen’s Houthi rebels. It is thus noteworthy that Erdoğan has publicly supported the Saudi-led, anti-Houthi military operation.

The AP report cites “a Turkish official” who says, contrary to American concerns, that Turkish and Saudi support for JAF is not finding its way to the Nusra Front:

Turkish officials say that Turkey provides logistical and intelligence support to some members of the coalition, but has no interaction with Nusra — which it considers a terrorist group. But the difference with IS, the officials say, is that Turkey does not view Nusra as a security threat and therefore does not impede it.

The Turkish official who touted the Conquest Army’s ability to fight cohesively said, however, that Turkey and Saudi Arabia have moved to bolster Ahrar al-Sham at Nusra’s expense. This strays from the U.S. line that al-Sham is an extremist group, but Turkish officials say they distinguish between international jihadist groups and others with more localized aims. They place al-Sham in the latter category.

Moreover, they hope to use al-Sham’s rise to put pressure on Nusra to renounce its ties to al-Qaida and open itself to outside help.

But this defense of the Turkey-Saudi mission actually raises more concerns than it answers. The idea that aid to Ahrar al-Sham could “pressure” Nusra to cut ties to al-Qaeda obviously poses the question of whether the US could accept a Nusra-led Syrian regime organized around an al-Qaeda-influenced ideology so long as it foreswore any overt ties to al-Qaeda’s core network (whose increasing weakness may render it irrelevant anyway). Moreover, Ahrar al-Sham’s immediate concerns may be local rather than regional or international, but its ideology is only marginally more moderate than Nusra’s, and it too has had high-level ties to the core al-Qaeda network. Its human rights record is also questionable. The Assyrian Monitor for Human Rights reported that Ahrar al-Sham fighters executed two Christian civilians in Idlib in late March, though it should be noted that The New York Times reported that Nusra carried out the executions.

One thing the Turkey-Saudi effort has clearly done is to make America’s central Syrian plan, training an army of moderate Syrian rebels that can take on IS and, ultimately, other extremist rebels and Assad, seem almost completely irrelevant to events within Syria. That plan, finally under way,initially will involve training a few hundred fighters at most. It will be years before that force is large enough to conceivably take on any of the major players in Syria. In the meantime America’s key regional allies appear to be taking matters into their own hands.

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is a Washington-based researcher and writer on international affairs and American politics. He has Master's degrees in Middle East Studies from the University of Chicago, where he specialized in Iranian history and policy, and in Public Policy and Management from Carnegie Mellon University, where he studied American foreign policy and Russian/Cold War history. He previously worked in the Persian Gulf for The RAND Corporation.

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