Turkey, Saudi-led regional coalition gears up efforts to topple al-Assad
Turkey’s always dynamic, always changing agenda does not permit many of us to follow and cover foreign policy issues in the necessary depth. This is especially the case amid the tense internal political climate on the eve of the June 7 parliamentary elections. One of the top issues concerning Turkish diplomacy, which is least covered by the media, is the Syrian issue - not only because Turkey hosts around 2 million Syrians but also because of the security challenges that it causes in the country.
Recent developments from Syria show that the Bashar al-Assad regime is having difficulty holding strategic points in deserted eastern areas against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and in the northern and western parts against the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other armed groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and al-Nusra, which have ties to al-Qaeda. Both groups are known to be Salafist and predominantly based around Aleppo and Idlib.
The FSA and these two groups are believed to be composed of a military force of around 50,000 to 60,000 men and are actively fighting against al-Assad’s army, which has been losing important manpower recently. The rebel group seized Idlib in a strategic victory against regime forces, clearing its rule in the northern part of Syria, with similar military achievements in the south as well. Reports suggest that rebels have now engaged in heavy fighting against the Syrian army in the Latakia province in areas close to al-Assad’s ancestral home. This port city is believed to have a strategic importance for the regime and its fall will give a huge blow to al-Assad.
Of course, these developments are being closely followed by the international community as well as by Turkey. In a comprehensive interview with private broadcaster NTV on April 30, presidential spokesman and foreign policy heavyweight İbrahim Kalın summarized these developments by saying, “As you follow closely, the balances in Syria have started to change.”
Change in balances
Before trying to shed a light on the roots of this balance change, let’s quote Ambassador Kalın more on Syria: “It’s very obvious that one of the major obstacles before establishing a regional order based on mutual respect is Syria. There will be no relief in the region before this issue is resolved ... The point on which everybody agrees, including the European Union and the United States, is that this blood-guilty dictator will have no place in the future of Syria. But the problem is how to make this point operational.”
On this issue, Kalın cited changing positions of the Gulf countries towards the resolution of the Syrian problem, especially after the balances changed in the field. Recalling President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s consecutive visits to the region, starting from Saudi Arabia on March 2 and followed by trips to Qatar and Kuwait, Kalın said these countries, which were skeptical of Turkey’s plans to establish a no-fly zone and security zones in Syria, are now warming to the idea. “They also have realized that this problem cannot be resolved merely by air bombardments on ISIL targets,” he said.
A regional coalition?
Kalın stressed that Turkey and the U.S. were in full agreement on Syrian issue, although this was not always among the priorities of the Americans. However, what he valued more is the recent change in the Saudi administration after the accession of the new king, calling it a “strategic recovery.”
Upon questions on how this no-fly zone or security areas will be established, Kalın said the following: “This may be through a regional coalition or a coalition to be formed by other countries. Various ways to implement this will be sought. These are, of course, under constant negotiations.”
Neither Kalın nor other Turkish officials admit it, but there are strong indications that Turkish and Saudi support to the rebels are becoming more visible in the field. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are believed to be supplying weapons to the rebels, while Turkey is playing a facilitator role in transferring these logistics inside Syria. Only days before, the Syrian regime openly accused Turkey of providing support to the rebels and violating international law.
As put by Kalın, the regional coalition composed of Turkey and the Gulf countries under the leadership of Saudi Arabia is already active in Syria with the purpose of toppling al-Assad by using the FSA-backed Salafist groups. This ambitious policy, however, is regarded by the West with concern, as it would fully kill off the tiny existing chance for a political settlement in Syria. For many in the West, the failure in finding a political settlement will only bring about the fragmentation of Syria.