A quiet meeting this past March in Saudi Arabia, and a recent anonymous leak from the Israeli military, set the stage for what may be a new and wider war in the Middle East.
Gathering in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh were Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, newly crowned Saudi King Salman, and the organizer of the get-together, the emir of Qatar. The meeting was an opportunity for Turkey and Saudi Arabia to bury a hatchet over Ankara’s support — which Riyadh’s opposes — to the Muslim Brotherhood, and to agree to cooperate in overthrowing the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.
Taking Aim at Assad
The pact prioritized the defeat of the Damascus regime over the threat posed by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, and aims to checkmate Iranian influence in the region. However, the Turks and the Saudis are not quite on the same page when it comes to Iran: Turkey sees future business opportunities when the sanctions against Tehran end, while Riyadh sees Iran as nothing but a major regional rival.
The Turkish-Saudi axis means that Turkish weapons, bomb making supplies, and intelligence — accompanied by lots of Saudi money — are openly flowing to extremist groups like the al-Qaeda associated Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham, both now united in the so-called “Army of Conquest.”
The new alliance has created a certain amount of friction with the United States, which would also like to overthrow Assad but for the time being is focused on attacking the Islamic State and on inking a nuclear agreement with Iran.
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This could change, however, because the Obama administration is divided on how deeply it wants to get entangled in Syria. If Washington decides to supply anti-aircraft weapons to the Army of Conquest, it will mean the United States has thrown in its lot with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar — and that the “war on terror” is taking a backseat to regime change in Syria.
Not that the Americans are overly concerned about aiding and abetting Islamic extremists. While the U.S. is bombing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Obama administration is also training Syrians to overthrow Assad, which objectively puts them in the extremist camp vis-à-vis the Damascus regime. Washington is also aiding the Saudis’ war on the Houthis in Yemen. Yet the Houthis are the most effective Yemeni opponents of the Islamic State and the group called Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, against which the United States is waging a drone war.
The Turkish-Saudi alliance seems to have already made a difference in the Syrian civil war. After some initial successes last year against divided opponents, the Syrian government has suffered some sharp defeats in the past few months and appears to be regrouping to defend its base of support in the coastal regions and the cities of Homs, Hama, and Damascus. While the Syrian government has lost over half of the country to the insurgents, it still controls up to 60 percent of the population.
Turkey has long been a major conduit for weapons, supplies, and fighters for the anti-Assad forces, and Saudi Arabia and most of its allies in the Gulf Coordination Council, representing the monarchies of the Middle East, have funneled money to the insurgents. But Saudi Arabia has always viewed the Muslim Brotherhood — which has a significant presence in Syria and in countries throughout the region — as a threat to its own monarchy.
The fact that Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party is an offshoot of the Brotherhood has caused friction with the Saudis. For instance, while Turkey denounced the military coup against the elected Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, Saudi Arabia essentially bankrolled the takeover and continues to bail Cairo out of economic trouble.
But all that was water under the bridge when it came to getting rid of Assad. The Turks and the Saudis have established a joint command center in the newly conquered Syrian province of Idlib and have begun pulling the kaleidoscope of Assad opponents into a cohesive force.
A War on Hezbollah?
Three years of civil war has whittled the Syrian Army from 250,000 in 2011 to around 125,000 today, but Damascus is bolstered by Lebanon’s Hezbollah fighters. The Lebanese Shiite organization that fought Israel to a draw in 2006 is among the Assad regime’s most competent forces.
Which is where the Israeli leak comes in.
The timing of the story — published on May 12 in The New York Times — was certainly odd, as was the prominence given a story based entirely on unnamed “senior Israeli officials.” If the source was obscured, the message was clear: “We will hit Hezbollah hard, while making every effort to limit civilian casualties as much as we can,” the official said. But “we do not intend to stand by helplessly in the face of rocket attacks.”