Are Turkey and Saudi Arabia Going to War in Syria?

April 20, 2015

In October 2014, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told CNN’s Christian Amanpour that, should the United States impose a no-fly-zone, Turkey would deploy troops in Northern Syria. Thereafter, Ankara released a map describing a Turkish and American-patrolled buffer zone that included Turkey’s entire border with Syria, except for the Islamic State-controlled area surrounding the city of Tel Abyad.

Turkey has advocated for the use of air power to carve out a safe zone along the border – and extending down to the city of Aleppo – since November 2011. Ankara envisioned using this zone to help organize the Syrian opposition so that they could put pressure on Bashar al Assad to step down as president. Assad’s exit has been Ankara’s goal since September 2011, when it broke with the Syrian regime in Damascus.

The United States has balked at Turkey’s repeated requests for a more aggressive policy in Syria. This American reluctance has prompted considerable speculation that Ankara could choose to go it alone in Syria. In line with this, Turkish sources have been quietly telling people for months that they have been working closely with Saudi Arabia on a strategy to intervene in Syria.

According to the Ankara rumor mill, this operation would involve the use of Saudi and Turkish air power to ground the Syrian Air Force and a jointly patrolled air exclusion zone along Turkey’s border with Syria. The Turkish military would then push into this area and carve out the zone it has been seeking for close to half a decade. The Huffington Post confirmed the validity of these rumors last week, reporting that talks between Riyadh and Ankara about joint military operations are ongoing.

The story indicates that both are prepared to intervene regardless of the American position. Indeed, in recent weeks, Riyadh and Ankara have overcome disagreements about the direction of the war each country is fighting in Syria – and now appear united in their support for Jaysh al Fateh, the umbrella rebel group that recently took control of Syria’s Idlib province. However, beyond this cooperation in Syria, there are a number of reasons to doubt the likelihood of a joint Saudi-Turkish military intervention in Syria – most, but not all, having to do with Turkish domestic politics. Erdogan would have to be willing to sacrifice his personal political ambitions, and this is not likely.

First, there are some blunt military realities to face. The Saudi Air Force is now engaged in a messy war in Yemen. They would have difficulty fighting and sustaining two air wars. The resource requirements needed to maintain a high pace of combat air patrols over much of Syria, the intelligence assets needed to target Assad’s positions on a continual basis, and the likely need for Saudi air assets to support Turkish ground forces may be too great for both countries. They would need the United States to effectively protect Turkish forces on the ground.

Second, a Turkish intervention in Syria would not be popular domestically. All of Turkey’s political parties have formally begun to campaign for the June 2015 national election. Turkey’s most important politician, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is openly campaigning for a major change to the country’s constitution – which will include a strengthened presidential system for him. To do so, his Justice and Development Party (AKP) must pick up 18 seats. As of now the party has 312 seats in the parliament, but needs 330 seats to draft its own constitution and then pass it out of parliament to a national referendum. The polling data suggests that this will prove exceedingly difficult – but not impossible.

Turkey’s opposition has targeted the AKP’s handling of foreign policy and has especially singled out the ruling party’s approach to the Syrian conflict for criticism. The AKP’s Syria policy is not popular. The opposition has also attacked the AKP for giving military and financial support to the Syrian opposition. These attacks have resulted in the widespread belief that the AKP supports the Islamic State and Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al Nusra – charges the AKP vehemently denies. However, if the AKP were to intervene, it would expose itself to even more intense criticism centered on its alleged support for these groups.

The AKP will steer clear of any military operations that could decrease their public support for the time being. The introduction of thousands of Turkish troops into Syria would certainly result in some casualties and raise the specter of war with the Syrian central government. Such action would certainly detract from the AKP’s popularity, which would then call into question its electoral prospects.

Furthermore, serious questions remain about the scope of any Turkish military involvement, in particular the Syrian Kurdish issue. In mid-July 2012, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) took control of three non-contiguous “cantons” (collectively known as Rojava) in Northern Syria. The PYD is linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting an intermittent insurgent campaign against the Turkish state since 1984.

Many of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens believe that the AKP supports the Islamic State. This accusation dates back to November 2012, when Turkey did appear to give some support to Jabhat al Nusra during the battle for Ras al Ayn. Indeed, Ankara has sought to isolate the three Kurdish cantons in Syria since the PYD took control of them when Bashar al Assad’s forces withdrew from these areas earlier in the conflict.

The PKK’s political wing in Turkey is the People’s Democratic Party (HDP). And it is the HDP that holds the key to Erdogan’s future. To enter the Turkish parliament, political parties must receive more than 10 percent of the vote. To circumvent this threshold, Kurdish politicians have routinely run as independents, and after having collected more than 10 percent of votes in Kurdish majority districts, have formed a joint Kurdish caucus in parliament.

This year, the HDP has opted to forgo this option, and has instead vowed to run as a party. If the party breaks the 10 percent threshold, the AKP will not get 330 votes. If they don’t succeed, the votes for the HDP will be re-allocated. This benefits the AKP and could push the party over the 330 vote threshold. For this reason, Erdogan and the AKP have devoted much of their campaign to attacking HDP co-chairperson Selahtin Demirtas.

These attacks have resulted in Erdogan freezing the state-led peace negotiations with the PKK. Erdogan has done so for two interrelated reasons: First, the AKP is losing nationalist votes to the far right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The MHP is vehemently opposed to the peace talks, warning that ceding municipal control to the Kurds (a key demand) is tantamount to splitting the Turkish nation into two.

Second, Erdogan – and not necessarily all of the AKP – has an interest in the HDP failing to break the 10 percent threshold. To do so, Erdogan is working to drive down Turkish liberal support for the HDP by hammering the party for its links to the PKK. BY doing so, Erdogan is intent on driving “fence-sitting” Turkish leftists to the stay home on election day, or vote for the irrelevant Republican People’s Party (CHP).

Against this backdrop, a recent clash in the Agri province of Turkey between the Turkish gendarmerie and PKK militants providing security at an HDP rally (not an uncommon occurrence in the past two years) has raised tensions considerably. The firefight renewed concerns about a return to violence. This brings us back to the notional Turkish-Saudi offensive in Syria.

A Turkish military intervention in Syria would raise the risk of the Turkish military clashing with the PYD’s militia in Syria. Any such clash would raise tensions with Kurds in Turkey, and thus risk a return to violence at a time when Turkish troops were deployed abroad. Any such violence would further undermine the AKP’s popularity; in particular, it would exacerbate the defection of hitherto AKP-sympathetic voters to the MHP.

These concerns will outlast the election in June – and thus calls into question whether the electoral climate will allow for a Turkish-Saudi military intervention in the months following the election. If the AKP exceeds the 330 vote total, it will still need to rally support for its self-drafted constitution before a national referendum. The AKP has two options should this happen. First, it could tack to the nationalist right and court MHP voters to push it over the 50% threshold. If this were to happen, a bloody campaign abroad would detract from votes – even though the AKP could experience a brief surge in the polls for “showing strength” and standing up to Assad. This support would require a successful military campaign. And in Syria, such a campaign would almost certainly entail a fight against insurgent-style attacks and therefore almost assuredly result in casualties.

In the event that the HDP does pass the threshold, the deployment of troops would be a non-starter. The AKP would still need the HDP during negotiations over the constitution, even though in this scenario Erdogan is unlikely to ever become an executive-style president. The HDP would certainly oppose any intervention in Syria, which means that any such motion would be contingent on the AKP voting en masse to authorize the use of force abroad. Absent international support – and ideally a resolution from the United Nations Security Council – it is unlikely that the AKP would even propose such a policy.

However, one would be remiss to disregard Turkish and Saudi frustration at Washington’s Syria policy. Ankara is deeply dissatisfied with the course of the current bombing campaign and the unitary focus on the Islamic State. Further, Saudi Arabia’s paranoia about Iran is driving impulsive decisions. Their actions in Syria are therefore less predictable. Ankara and Riyadh have certainly deepened cooperation in recent months. The most likely result of this recalibration in approaches to the Syrian conflict will be increased support for the Syrian rebels, independent of the U.S. backed train-and-equip program.

As such, one should expect greater support for certain rebel groups and increased intelligence cooperation. However, it is hard to foresee any route to a joint Turkish-Saudi military operation in Syria. The politics don’t add up in Ankara and Tayyip Erdogan will need every vote he can get to realize his ambitions for an executive presidency.