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Possible Turkey-Saudi alliance against Assad is surrounded by hopes and challenges

Multiple reports suggest that Saudi Arabia is holding high-level talks with Turkey to discuss the possibility of creating a joint force with the objective of military intervention in Syrian against the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. So far, the talks have not come up with a plan of action, and the possible alliance between the two historical rivals is surrounded by international and regional challenges.

A source told the Huffington Post earlier this month that in one possible scenario, Turkey would provide military personnel backed by Saudi’s air force to support Syrian opposition forces, the moderate rebel forces trained and equipped by Turkey and the US. The source also claimed that Qatar has a role in mediating at the talks.

Monzer Akbik, a senior member of the Syrian National Coalition and its representative in exile, explained to MEMO that Turkey-Saudi coordination could be the key to establishing a no-fly zone. He noted that it would be nearly impossible to defeat the Syrian regime’s air force without the use of advanced weapons or the establishment of a no-fly zone. “We need a regional alliance; the Syrian opposition doesn’t have either an air force or anti-aircraft weapons,” he added.

The Turkish authorities have been clear about their desire to establish a no-fly zone along their southern border with Syria since the early stages of the conflict. The zone would bolster Syria’s rebels by blocking opposition-held areas from Assad’s air defence system. Furthermore, it would help to maintain a secure passage for humanitarian aid and undoubtedly improve security for civilians.

Turkey differs from Saudi Arabia on the issues in Egypt. The government in Ankara is critical of the Egyptian government, which led the military’s overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. For Saudi, however, Egypt is a major ally and is supporting Saudi’s military campaign in Yemen.

Turkey’s President Erdogan meeting with King Salman of Saudi Arabia in March 2015. Photo courtesy of Presidency of Turkey.

Riyadh is concerned about Iran’s influence in Syria, and has been prompted to find new allies to counter it, particularly after America’s decision to forgo airstrikes on Syria and commit to the nuclear negotiations with Tehran.

Previous discussions for an alliance between Turkey and the US were unsuccessful due to tensions between the two countries and disagreement about the objectives for intervention in Syria. The US has focused primarily on countering ISIS extremism, a strategy that will not affect its relations with Iran, Assad’s main ally. Turkey, meanwhile, has made its participation in any international coalition in Syria conditional on fighting the Assad regime and ISIS at the same time.

International interests in Syria may affect the realisation of a Turkey-Saudi alliance. It is unclear whether Ankara and Riyadh have the ability to conduct a military intervention without the US. A useful indicator is the fact that America did not provide military support in the regional coalition against the Houthis in Yemen. It did, however, provide logistical support.

“I do not anticipate a conventional ground army taking on Assad in the absence of strong US endorsement,” said Faysal Itani, a Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East in Washington DC. He argued that US participation in such an alliance serves its interests in the region. However, the Obama administration is unlikely to take direct military action against the Assad regime. According to Itani, the extent of any US participation would be limited to logistical support, as happened in Yemen.

Though the next steps remain unknown, the process for a potential Turkey-Saudi alliance has been initiated. Zahran Aloush, the leader of Saudi-linked Jayesh Al-Islam, one of the largest Islamist opposition groups operating around Damascus, visited Turkey earlier this month and has attended negotiations with the Turks. The spokesperson of the group, Captain Islam Aloush, told MEMO that its leader went to Turkey with the aim of “finding a solution to the Syrian issue” but he did not disclose anything more than that. “We welcome any deal between the countries that supports the revolution to overthrow the regime,” he explained. Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi Arabian journalist who is known for his knowledge of the kingdom’s political discussions, tweeted last week that Aloush’s visit to Turkey was an important part of boosting Turkey-Saudi coordination in Syria. During his visit to Riyadh in March, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed with the newly-crowned King Salman Bin Abdulaziz to boost support to the Syrian opposition.

In the past few weeks, the Assad regime has suffered multiple losses on the ground. The rebels are now unexpectedly united, and have launched offensives against critical regime targets, gaining both land and support. Al-Qaeda elements are also engaged in these offensives but not in lead roles.

The Syrian National Coalition’s Monzer Akbik praises the new coordination between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which has resulted, he insists, in advancements on the ground for the Free Syrian Army.

Former US Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, now a senior fellow with the Middle East Institute in Washington DC, wrote a commentary suggesting that Assad’s current position is the worst it has been since the conflict erupted. He pointed out several signs of weakness that the regime now faces, such as lost ground, the inability to advance, economic concerns and the depletion of the state’s foundational security and military personnel. “Recent developments may in fact be indicators of the beginning of the end,” he concluded.

Saudi Arabia’s role in the war in Syria is crucial. It has been involved in campaigns against the Assad regime on various levels, diplomatically and militarily. Assad’s removal from power has become a necessity for Riyadh to halt Iran’s domination and expansion of influence over Syria and the wider region. Both Saudi Arabia and Turkey have an interest in reversing Iran’s expansion in the Middle East, particularly in Syria; however, the relationship between the two has been absent in any functional sense. Indeed, Saudi considered Turkey as a regional rival due to its support for the Arab revolutions. Only recently have the two states been pushed towards coordination based on common interests to respond to Syria and Iraq’s war-torn complications and maintain control over any unforeseen threats to their respective national security interests.

The unstable conditions across the region, along with Iran’s monopoly of the imbalances, have pushed Saudi Arabia to modify its foreign policy in an unexpected way, especially when the kingdom’s national security came under direct threat. This change has produced a unique level of support among Arab states, support that has not been seen before amongst the multi-interest driven Arab regimes.

Simultaneously, the member states of the Arab League have agreed on an outline for a regional joint military force to fight extremist groups and maintain security, something that Egypt’s President Al-Sisi has been pushing since February. The force, as proposed, would be capable of ensuring regional security and stability.

The internationally-supported Saudi-led Arab coalition against the Houthi rebels in Yemen indicates the shift to a new phase in the Middle East, where a joint rapid reaction Arab force would be available to intervene to nip potential threats in the bud. The Syrian opposition has declared its support for the Saudi-led coalition’s “Operation Decisive Storm” in Yemen, and has called on the Arab states to put together a similar operation against the Syrian regime. “A regional alliance is a great idea; it would not only eliminate the Assad regime, but also maintain [security] conditions and protect the political process of the country,” Akbik pointed out.

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Abdulrahman Al-Masri is an independent journalist based in Canada. His work covers politics and news in the Middle East, and Syria in particular. He analyses international politics and the crises in the region, bringing attention to the way that foreign interests influence conflicts. Follow him on twitter at @AbdulrhmanMasri.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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