Tracking Saudi’s “Syria intervention”

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

This blog post is intended to include updates on the potential and developments of a Saudi or Saudi-Turkish involvement in the Syrian civil war.

***See bottom for latest updates***

Around February 10th a series of reports emerged of Saudi sounding out the region on the possibility of an intervention (land and air forces) in the Syrian civil war.   Most of these reports were based on rumors clearly fed to the media by Saudis and others either to sound out the region or to cause the Saudis to cease and desist their intentions. For instance one report notes: “Two people familiar with Saudi plans told the Financial Times that high-ranking Gulf officials are in Riyadh meeting Turkish officials to discuss options for deploying ground troops to head a coalition of fighters inside Syria.” In order to pose their intention as something other than a Saudi invasion they noted that the idea was for a “US-led international coalition” or some other regional coalition.  However we know that the Saudis have been angered by Washington’s Iran Deal.

In January when Saudi and Iran feuded after Saudi Arabia executed a Shia cleric, they sent clear messages that no American influence on them would dissuade their continued anger over Iran’s policies in the region.

John Kerry went to Saudi Arabia in late January to re-assure them. It is clear that this didn’t have the desired affect, they don’t trust Kerry, who has been the major driver of the Iran deal.

On February 5, 2015, even before Saudi was fully floating the open intervention, Russia was already warning the Saudis to keep their hands off Syria.  “Syria has to give official consent, to invite, otherwise it will be a war. The same applies to international law,” Pavel Krasheninnikov, the head of the State Duma committee, said.

This comes amidst the background of an almost year-long Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, a conflict that I examined as it broke out.  Worries arise over the cost of this war. This feeds stories from October of last year about a Saudi oil-price war against Iran and Russia. Other articles have looked at the Saudi-Russia dispute.  There is a clear wave of articles appearing in October 2015. Even in September there were “Saudi threat” headlines.

A lot of these stories amount to rhetoric, such as Iran’s threats to “destroy” Saudi after the execution of Nimr al-Nimr. The same rhetoric surfaced around the time rumors of Saudi intervention in Syria emerged.  Hezbollah released statements about opening “the gates of hell” for any Saudi troops.  The Syrian regime also threatened “war” if Saudi intervened on February 6.

But what distinguishes rumors and threats, such as stories about Qatar intervening in Syria in October of 2015, from reality?  It is no secret Saudi wants Syria’s Bashar al-Assad gone. As the world turned on ISIS, the Saudi-Qatar policy to unseat him was sabotaged in 2014.  Nevertheless the “plans for intervention” by Gulf states, keeps coming up, as it did in October of last year. ISIS has also targeted Saudi, which makes the story of Saudi “fighting ISIS”, more substantial.  Most of the countries intervening in Syria in 2015 used the excuse of “fighting ISIS” as part of their reason to intervene.  This was particularly true with Turkey and Russia’s excuse. Saudi Arabia formed an “anti-ISIS” coalition of 34 Muslim countries in mid-December 2015, but many Western leaders expressed skepticism about this “Islamic anti-ISIS” coalition.

Aleppo has been the center of a the regime’s offensive since December, a major strategic city, where many refugees have fled from.  Iran has played a role in the offensive as well, alongside massive Russian airstrikes.

Let’s recall also that this comes amidst the failed peace talks in January and the new “cease fire talks” in Mid-February.  Even as the cease fire nonsense was being discussed, Assad vowed to “win” and re-conquer Syria, while the US claimed Assad’s fantasy was “deluded.”  Syrian rebels say they will keep fighting even as Aleppo seems to be falling, 150,000 refugees are crowded at the Turkish border, the war death toll may now top 500,000 and Syria is also advancing in the souther towards the Jordanian border. Screen Shot 2016-02-13 at 7.06.27 PM.png

Some articles have cast aspersions on Saudi military prowess and ability.

The breaking news on February 13 was the Saudi jets were in İncirlik Air Base. Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, the most public face of Saudi’s anti-Assad policy said “There will be no Bashar al-Assad in the future.” Russia Today says Saudi sorties will begin soon, a reminder of the Turkish shootdown of a Russian jet in November 2015. Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Saturday Feb. 13 that Saudi would be striking ISIS as part of a US-led effort.

This comes amidst rumors that Turkey had shelled Kurdish YPG forces near Azaz town in Syria, a day after Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu had warned YPG and the Kurdish forces once again against advancing too far.  “We will do what is necessary.”

Analysis

It is clear that there is a pattern of Saudi threats against Assad and floating concepts of intervention to see if they can goad others to join them.  Saudi made sure during the Yemen assault that it gathered together the gulf states.  It tried to involve Pakistan and Egypt ground forces.  In the end it also relied on Columbia mercenaries. In recent months it has now secured close support of Sudan and Morocco (which has said it will guarantee the security of the Gulf, without having any way to do so).

Saudi doesn’t trust the US commitment, but it fears direct involvement.  It fears destabilization inside the Kingdom, as it has watched Iraq and other countries, such as Lebanon, whose peace it helped guarantee at Taif, fall to Iranian proxies and influence.  It has tried to peddle its influence in Ankara and Erbil, hoping to stem the tide.

Saudi and Turkey can read the strategic and tactical map in Syria.  The rebels are hard pressed and losing ground.  Refugees are flooding away.  Assad is boasting.  Turkey also fears involvement in Syria.  AKP founding member and former foreign minister Yasar Yakis has warned Turkey against it. But Turkey is committed to not letting the Syrian rebels be totally destroyed, and Saudi feels the same way.  Both of them sunk political support into these rebel groups.  Neither of them seem to fully comprehend that ISIS sabotaged their policy.

*** Update February 14 ***

For second day Turkey has been shelling YPG and Kurdish forces in Syria, confirmed by reports.

Turkey denies arrival of jets at Incirlik base

Screen Shot 2016-02-14 at 6.53.51 PM

Location of airbase south of Azaz that media reports is center of contention

 

February 14: France and others unhappy with Turkish role in Syria, and BBC notes “Saudi Arabia confirmed its jets, which are taking part in sorties against IS, were now stationed at the Incirlik air base in Turkey.”  Syria condemned Turkey for an “outrageous violation of international law.”

Report also of clashes in Hatay between regime and Turkey

Around midnight reports of clashes in Istanbul between Kurdish protesters and Turkish security forces, as well as shelling of YPG in Ayn Daqnah near Azaz. More rumors on Twitter of Turkey considering ground incursion.

Russian Prime Minister says that any ground incursion could lead to either new “cold war” or intimates some kind of third world war. At time time Damascus has claimed that Turkish troops had entered Syria.

February 15:

Turkey responds to YPG attack on border post in Hatay area with continued shelling, for third day.  “Today our border security outpost in the Hatay area at the Syrian border was attacked. Retaliation shots were fired in return,” Tanju Bilgic told reporters.  PM Davutoglu was quoted in Reuters as saying that the town of Azaz would not be permitted to fall to the Kurdish YPG.

Jamie Dettmer reports casualties from Syria evacuated to hospital in Hilis.

Turkey alleges Russian missiles have killed 14 in Azaz.  Photos showed these to be Tochka missiles and one site claimed they hit a hospital.

US President Obama calls Putin to discuss Syrian cease fire.

Malcolm Honlein of the Council of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations meets with Turkish officials and is quoted as discussing need for closer Israel-Turkish ties and mentions the that Jewish community in Turkey is safe.

Al-Arabiya reports Turkish soldier killed, but Turkish media note he died trying to prevent human smugglers in Hatay area.

Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 2.58.17 PM

Focus now shifts to Tell Rifaat in Syria, south of Azaz, where reports all day of fighting have come in between YPG/SDF and forces of various Syrian rebel groups such as Ahrar Sham.

According to reports, former US ambassador James Jeffrey, who has served in Turkey, Albania and Iraq, claimed the situation in Syria-Turkey border was a major crises: “I know this must sound terribly confusing to your listeners. It’s terribly confusing to those of us who have been working in the region for 30 years…This is about as dangerous a situation as the Cuban missile crisis…we have no cards to play other than reiterating that there’s no military solution. Well, there’s no military solution in the eyes of the White House; there’s definitely a military solution in the eyes of the Kremlin.”

February 16

MEMRI published translation of Syrian response to Saudi intentions, saying Saudis will return in coffins.

Martin Chulov profiles YPG successes, writing at the end, “Turkish shelling of YPG positions over the past three days has signalled that worse will follow if its advances continue. Russian airstrikes on the border town of Azaz – the main gateway for refugees and Turkish supplies – also up the ante. All sides sense that the war may be entering a decisive phase – possibly a miscalculation in a conflict that now has so many feed points. The temptation to force rivals’ hands has never been greater. Nor have the risks.”

Tanju Bilgic, foreign ministry in Turkey, condemned US State Department Spokesman Kirby for asserting US common interests with YPG and noted that Turkey would not ask permission to confront “terrorists.”

Al-Jazeera examined what the Saudi deployment could mean for the balance of power, “The Turkish air force, potentially an extremely powerful weapon against ISIL, would risk a highly dangerous confrontation if they enter Syrian airspace anywhere near Russian aircraft, as the Kremlin has repeatedly made clear.This is what the Saudi F-15SA deployment may well change.”

An important article looked at the life of female refugees.

Russia’s suspected bombing of an MSF hospital was said to have killed 50 people but Russia denied it had committed “war crimes.”

A Turkish official was quoted that any operation in Syria would be “with our international allies….There is not going to be a unilateral military operation from Turkey to Syria.”

February 16

NATO which plans to interdict refugees and complete a training has seen Greece airspace violated by Turkey, according to reports. Turkey is a member of NATO.

Turkey with backing from Germany is discussing a no fly zone as 600,000 cluster on border.

 

 

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