Nothing new on the Syrian front

Nothing new on the Syrian front

The Syrian question has become part of the domestic political agenda prior to the elections. It has also become a source of wishful thinking in the West, with an increasing number of reports suggesting Turkey and Saudi Arabia are on the verge of entering Syria militarily to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

There is nothing to substantiate this claim, which seems to have received added steam because of the political backing Turkey has given to the Saudi-led operation against Houthi rebels in Yemen, and the fact that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said it could also provide logistical support. 

The assumption, also based on President Erdoğan’s visit to Saudi Arabia in March, is that the two countries have agreed on a military pact against regimes and elements in the region they are both opposed to.

However, the logistical support Erdoğan mentioned has also not yet materialized let alone any indication that Turkey will participate in this operation militarily. 

It seems the Saudi led-operation is set to get messier for Riyadh, with reports of mounting civilian casualties, and this makes it even more unlikely that Ankara will take an active part in it, given the public criticism this would undoubtedly elicit at home.  

Turkey today is a house divided, so it is highly risky for a government to engage in a foreign adventure which will clearly be used against it by its domestic political rivals. As matters stand that is exactly what is happening now with regard to Syria, with a leading opposition politician claiming last week that a joint Turkish-Saudi operation against al-Assad is imminent. 

The intention here is clearly to stir up trouble for the government at a volatile moment in domestic politics. Sensing this, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has denied claims the Turkish military will be entering Syria to engage al-Assad’s forces and establish the buffer zone it has been asking Washington for with little success.

Meanwhile, the fact Davutoğlu is making a big deal over the visit he paid this weekend to the Süleyman Shah Tomb in Syria, which was recently relocated to areas held by Syrian Kurds for security reasons, also shows how much the Syrian issue is being used in domestic politicking.

Foreign Ministry Spokesman Tanju Bilgiç told reporters recently that “there are no new elements” regarding the cooperation between Turkey and Saudi Arabia in Syria. “The two countries’ views overlap on the Syrian case, with long-continued cooperation on this issue,” he said.

That is about the true size of the matter. It is no secret that Turkey and Saudi Arabia both want to see the back of al-Assad and have been working to this end from the start by supporting anti-Assad groups the West does not consider savory.

The fact that they may be coordinating their efforts more closely now, having overcome some of the distrust they feel towards each other over issues like Ankara’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which Riyadh despises, changes little in real terms.

It is also very unlikely that Riyadh will want to open up a new front in Syria when it is already embroiled in Yemen, where it has to also cope with radical offshoots of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), who see the ruling elite in Saudi Arabia as their bitter enemies, alongside the Shiite Houthis.

Given their ideological differences, with the Saudi side looking on warily as Erdoğan continues to vilify Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi - a much closer ally of Riyadh’s than Erdoğan can ever hope to be - and continues to support the Brotherhood and Hamas, which the Saudis more or less see as terrorist organizations, there are also limits to how close Ankara and Riyadh can ultimately get.

Looking at this general picture, one can comfortably say there is really nothing new on the Syria front as far as Turkish-Saudi Arabian cooperation is concerned, other than deceptive political rumors at home, and some wishful thinking abroad.