There are worrying signs that the already-catastrophic Syrian civil war is on the edge of spiraling completely out of control. Recently, I guessed that the neighboring Sunni states – mainly Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – would probably stop short of giving active support to the rebel factions they back. Now it looks like I might have been over-optimistic about that.
It’s no secret that Turkey – both its secular and military rulers in the past, and the islamists who run it now – has a problem with the Kurds. There’s been a long-running insurgency in Turkish Kurdistan, which the leftist PKK want as part of an independent Kurdish state, and the Turkish military has been actively fighting against Kurdish guerrillas for years. However Erdogan’s government has taken advantage of the current mess to start attacking Kurdish militias who’re fighting against Islamic State and other jihadist groups, both in Iraq and in Syria. Now it looks like the Turks and some of their Sunni allies are planning to go further.
The Saudis and Emiratis have been distracted by Yemen recently but now they’ve announced plans to play a more active role in Syria. Officially, the aim is to counter ISIS, and that’s quite credible. While many individual Saudis back ISIS, the government certainly doesn’t. The problem is that they do back some other extremist Sunni militias, and any intervention is likely to be aimed at supporting those groups. That makes the timing of this intervention a problem, because the Syrian military and its Shia allies have the upper hand right now. But there’s an even bigger problem, and that’s where the Gulf Arabs are planning to operate from.
Any talk of Saudi ground forces is speculation right now, although it’s becoming a real possibility. Air strikes, however, are a lot easier to arrange – and there are now Saudi combat aircraft on the Turkish base at Incirlik. This is a long-standing NATO base and as well as the Turks themselves there are US, British and French aircraft there. So far that hasn’t been a problem. The NATO aircraft have been hitting jihadi targets and nobody worth listening to objects to that. But the Saudis have another agenda.
Saudi Arabia’s main enemy is Iran, and the issue between them is religious. Iran is Shia, and the Saudis think the Shia are heretics. That’s also their main gripe with Assad’s regime. Assad is an Alawite, another Islamic sect hated by strict Wahhabis, and most of Syria’s religious minorities support the government. Will Saudi Arabia confine its attacks to ISIS or will it give in to the temptation to attack government forces and their Iranian allies? Because if they start hitting Assad’s forces there could be a problem.
If the Saudis attack government troops, then Assad and his allies – which includes Russia – will want to respond, and under international law they’ll have a right to. The problem is that if they respond against the source of the raids – Incirlik – that puts US and NATO forces in the firing line. The prospect of causing NATO casualties might make Assad and Putin hesitate – but in the initial fury following a Saudi attack it might not. The question for the west is that, given the limited combat value of Saudi forces, is it worth taking the risk of having them around? And if the Turks insist on hosting them, maybe NATO should consider pulling back from Incirlik until the threat has passed.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.