A Greater Role for Saudi Arabia and Turkey in Syria?

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    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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There is no end to the Syrian civil war in sight, despite the major world powers pushing for a ceasefire. It is likely that the refugee crisis will only worsen in the coming spring months. Many who are looking at the United States to provide a path forward have bemoaned the lack of any consistent and meaningful policy. With such uncertainty in the air, America’s regional allies, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, are likely to take matters in their own hands.

While Russian and Iranian military assistance to the Assad regime continues unabated and apparently with some results, U.S. allies bemoan Washington’s ambiguity on its objectives in Syria, which is making may of its European and regional allies nervous: “French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius’s remark questioning the commitment of the U.S. to resolving the crisis in Syria has shone light on an issue our region has been concerned about. That a French foreign minister has been very forthright and critical of the U.S. policy is an acknowledgement of the seriousness of the problem….Syria is sliding inexorably to a point of no-return. The realities on the ground have changed with the entry of Russian forces….Options are narrowing on Syria with the collapse of the UN-sponsored talks in Geneva….Current US efforts will not help change the direction of the war in rebels’ favor.”

 The foot-dragging on the part of the Obama administration, along with significant reverses in opposition force strongholds have, according to a recent editorial by the Jordan Times, make it more likely that other regional actors will soon get militarily involved in Syria: “Coinciding with Russia’s intensive bombardment of anti-regime groups was America’s gradual but clear abandoning of the Syrian opposition groups….The strategic shift in the balance of power in Syria has alarmed key regional players such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Government forces are few kilometres from the Turkish border and if their advances go unchecked, they will soon cut all supply routes to opposition groups. Ankara is also worried about U.S. support for Syrian Kurdish groups, whose fighters are now engaging Daesh in northeastern Syria….It is difficult to assume that the U.S. has a clear policy on Syria. These new realities are keeping Riyadh and Ankara on their toes. What they decide next will determine the future of Syria.”

Saudi Gazette’s Khaled M. Batarfi suggests that the possibility of Saudi involvement is very much in the cards, despite overt and implicit threats coming from the Syrian and Iranian governments: “Walid Al-Moallem, Syrian regime’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister, had warned Saudi Arabia against sending ground troops to fight Daesh in Syria without getting a permission from the ‘Syrian government,’ first….The Yemeni government with the support of the Saudi-led alliance is winning in Yemen. A year ago, it was the other way around. The militia was on the verge of capturing Aden. Today, Sanaa is on the verge of being returned to the legitimate government….With such track record, Saudi Arabia and allies could go on with a good chance of success to fight terrorism in Syria. They suffered a great deal and had enough of terrorists. Daesh and Al-Qaeda had never attacked Iran, Russia, Israel or Bashar’s regime. In fact, Al-Qaeda headquarters have been based in Iran since 2002. Before and after, they have attacked Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries repeatedly.”

Turkey is another country that might soon see its military involvement in the Syrian conflict significantly increased. Turkey, some would argue, brings with it a lot of baggage, being under a cloud of suspicion regarding its alleged oil dealings with ISIS and its opposition to the Kurdish forces in Syria. In an op-ed for the Daily News Egypt, Ahmed Abbas cites Russian sources who accuse the Turkish leadership of being “involved in illegal oil trade with ‘Islamic State’ militants. … The Defence Ministry stressed that Turkey is the final destination for oil smuggled from Syria and Iraq.Russia is aware of three main oil smuggling routes to Turkey, according to Deputy Minister Anatoly Antonov….In the media briefing, Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu said 2,000 fighters, 250 vehicles and hundreds of tonnes of ammunition have been sent in the past weeks from Turkey to terrorists in Syria, fuelling violence in the country.”

Jerusalem Post’s Josh Cohen is equally critical of Turkey’s role in the Syrian conflict, arguing that “Turkish policy contributed to the rapid growth of Islamic extremist groups in Syria, and Turkey remains as much a part of the problem as the solution….IS publicly acknowledged Turkey’s support, with a senior commander boasting that ‘most of the fighters who joined us in the beginning of the war came via Turkey, and so did our equipment and supplies.’Another former IS member also highlighted how foreign jihadists could travel openly through Turkey on the way to the Syrian border….Although Turkey has long denied it supports IS or other extremist groups, Ankara’s ties to these groups are not exactly a secret in Washington. …To be clear, Turkey is just one of many countries which enabled the rise of IS and other extremist groups in Syria. Turkey did not begin the war in Syria, and it was Assad’s brutality that turned Syria into a breeding ground for extremists.”

In an op-ed written for the Turkish daily Hurriyet Daily News, Murat Yetkin, mounts a defense of his government, noting that the aforementioned characterization is unfair and offensive considering what Turkey is doing to accommodate Syrian refugees: “Turkey has taken some 2.5 million Syrian refugees since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria in 2011. Erdoğan also underlined that it has spent ‘nearly $10 billion so far on accommodation and basic services, including education, with negligible outside aid, including from the U.N.’…Davutoğlu also complained about the ‘hypocrisy’ or ‘double standard’ regarding the treatment of terrorist groups. The row between Washington and Ankara is growing over the support given to the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria. The PYD provides militia in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but Turkey says supporting the PYD – the Syrian sister of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – is simply the same as supporting the PKK, which remains on the official terrorist organizations list of both the U.S. and the EU.”

Daily Sabah’s Bunyamin Esen addresses another dimension of the impact of the Syrian refugee deluge on the Turkish economy, all the while expressing concern that the current status quo is unsustainable: “As soon as the major fight by Syrian leader Bashar Assad’s regime started against its own people four years ago, Turkey implemented an open-door policy for those seeking refuge from the violence in Syria. Today, according to official figures from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 2,503,549 Syrian refugees were in Turkey as of Dec. 31, 2015….There is no need to say that taking in nearly 3 million refugees in a couple of years would be a serious challenge for any country. It is a challenge not only in terms of expenses but also socially and politically…. long-term policy solutions are needed.”

But the refugee situation is not the only concern for Turkey. Daily Sabah’s Sener Akturk argues that the Kurdish question adds another combustible variable in the mix, with Turkey doing its best to delegitimize Kurdish political parties on both sides of the border: “While the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD) is hailed by some in the West almost as a pro-Western democratic militia fighting for a liberal pluralist oasis in the desert, nothing can be further from the truth. The PYD has already established a one-party regime that can be best described as a ‘belated Soviet experiment’ in Syria. The PYD regime is the antithesis of the political pluralism and partisan competition that is the sine qua non of any liberal democracy….The PKK in Turkey, and its Syrian affiliate PYD, are Marxist-Leninist organizations with an overwhelmingly Kurdish militant base. Their aim, already mostly realized in Syria, appears to be the establishment of a militarized one-party regime that combines ethnic nationalist demands with socialism.”

But the Americans have relied on the Kurdish fighters to push back against ISIS gains, meaning that Turkey and the United States are on a collision course. According to an op-ed by Today’s Zaman’s Deniz Arslan it is likely that “U.S.-Turkish differences on Syrian Kurdish PYD [will continue to] deepen…. Despite President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent demand that Washington choose either Turkey or the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) as an ally, the U.S. has said that unlike Turkey, it does not consider the PYD to be a terrorist organization and will continue to support it in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)….Former diplomat and main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Deputy Chairman Öztürk Yılmaz said on Tuesday that at the beginning of the Syrian conflict, the U.S. encouraged Turkey behind the scenes to remove Assad. In a press conference in Parliament, Yılmaz claimed that the U.S. later moved away from this policy and began to focus on eliminating ISIL first. He said the U.S. supports the PYD because it is the leading force on the ground against ISIL.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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