Analysis

Saudi Arabia Cooking Up Strategic Move Against Russia

Saudi-Turkish threat to invade Syria points to the gap between the desire for a cease-fire agreement and reality. Judging by Russia’s conduct so far, Riyadh and Ankara might want to reexamine what could be a dangerous gamble.

A Saudi man waves his country's flag during Janadriyah Culture Festival on the outskirts of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia February 8, 2016.
A Saudi man waves his country's flag during Janadriyah Culture Festival on the outskirts of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia February 8, 2016. AP

The news from Munich on Friday that a cease-fire would be declared in Syria within a week was still fresh when Saudi Arabia announced its own initiative: It would send warplanes to Turkey and special ground forces to fight in Syria against the Islamic State organization. The Saudi-Turkish proposal demonstrated just how great the gap is between hopes for an end to the fighting and the situation on the ground.

Almost half a million Syrian civilians have died and another seven million have been displaced from their homes. But these numbers carry little weight in the face of the complex interests of the foreign forces operating in Syria.

Saudi Arabia – whose foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, reiterated the kingdom’s position that Syrian President Bashar Assad cannot remain in office – is tightening its strategic relationship with Turkey. The latter has become a critical member of the Sunni Muslim coalition created by Saudi Arabia. This coalition has a weighty representation in Syria, in the form of major rebel militias such as the Free Syrian Army, that continue to fight the Syrian regime.

The FSA leadership claimed this weekend that the announcement from Munich contravenes all previous agreements reached with the rebel leadership, especially the understanding that there will be no cease-fire as long as Assad remains in power. It can be inferred from this that the cease-fire is doomed even before it begins, since too many of the warring parties have not signed up for it.

Saudi Arabia's defense minister, Mohammed bin Salman, during a counter Islamic State coalition meeting. February 11, 2016.
AP

But even if the main militias do join, it is not entirely clear what they are signing up for. From the way the Munich agreement is worded, it is difficult to understand which areas are included in the cease-fire, against whom the warfare is to continue, and what is to happen with the Russian and Western coalition airstrikes, as well as the anticipated Saudi airstrikes from Turkish territory.

Ostensibly, it is clear that the war against Islamic State and the Al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front will continue unabated. But what about other militias that the Syrian regime defines as terrorist organizations? In addition, will Turkey agree to halt its attacks on the bases of Syrian Kurds, and will the cease-fire restrict Russian air support for the Syrian army forces encircling Aleppo?

In the absence of clear answers, we can only look to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who admitted that the plan was “ambitious,” or his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, who this weekend said the chance of the cease-fire holding was “49 percent.” Their more optimistic German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, put the odds at 51 percent.

While no one seems particularly interested in the very iffy cease-fire, the same cannot be said about the military involvement of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states in Syria.

Here, too, the details are still unknown factors: how many planes the Saudis will station at Turkey’s Incirlik air base; how many special forces will be sent, to which fronts and with what goals. U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, who was quick to welcome the Saudi announcement, explained that the kingdom’s forces will act only in coordination with the United States, and that their mission was to fight ISIS, especially in the northeastern Syrian city of Raqqa.

Saudi officials said they will serve as auxiliary and training forces for the local militias, while Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu extended the scope of cooperation, saying Saturday that his country and Saudi Arabia may launch ground operations in Syria.

Proceed with caution

These statements, too, should be treated with caution, if not outright skepticism, at this stage. A Turkish-Saudi ground offensive against the Islamic State group would have to be coordinated with other militias operating in the area, especially the Kurdish militias (which are currently considered the most effective force in Syria against the organization). Turkey certainly does not view these militias as potential partners in a war against ISIS, and neither does Saudi Arabia.

But even assuming that the Kurds will not be partners – in contrast to the United States, which has clasped these Kurdish militias to its military bosom – the main problem with such a ground operation is the expected confrontation with the Syrian army and the prospect of military friction with Russian and Iranian forces.

Syria is a relatively large country, but the area of battle is shrinking, increasing the likelihood of combat between foreign forces operating within it. The Saudi-Turkish strategy aims to erode the Russian monopoly over military operations in Syria, or at least to threaten Russia with the cooling of the warm relationship built over the past year between Moscow and Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia may be thinking that Russia still wants to maintain ties with it, as part of efforts to expand its influence in the region at the expense of the United States, and will adopt the Saudi position on Assad. (Russia’s relations with Turkey turned hostile after Turkish forces downed a Russian warplane last November.)

On the other hand, in light of Russia’s brutal behavior and rejection of all international pressure, Saudi intervention in a war without any guaranteed military or diplomatic gains for the kingdom – and without a clear exit strategy – may be a dangerous gamble.

It would seem, therefore, that the Turkish-Saudi plan needs additional review and editing, particularly when the only country that seems to have anything like a real strategy is Russia.