Over the past several weeks, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have repeatedly discussed intervening in the Syrian conflict. Is this sort of intervention likely?
In recent days, the possibility of Saudi Arabia and Turkey intervening in Syria has been increasingly discussed. Both countries have issued some contradictory statements regarding their intentions: claiming to be considering intervening either independently, in concert with each other or as a broader coalition of powers, and at the same time denying any immediate plans of intervention.
These statements have only been further obfuscated by recent actions, such as the Turkish shelling of Kurdish-held territory in Northern Syria and Saudi Arabia’s recent “Northern Thunder” war exercises.
The possibility of sending armed forces into Syria possess a huge risk for all parties with interests in the region. Not only could such an intervention prolong the devastating war, which has already caused some 4 million Syrians to flee the country. The fact that Iran and Russia are also in Syria creates a risk for the conflict becoming a broader regional war.
Curbing Kurdish Power
To properly assess the risk of war, we must first seek to understand each country’s motivations for intervening in the Syrian crisis.
Turkey’s motivation is clear: Ankara is extremely concerned about the growing power of the Kurds in northeastern Syria, especially given recent Kurdish gains at the expense of the Syrian opposition. This is not out of some instinctive universal opposition to any Kurdish autonomy – after all, the Turkish government has worked closely with the Kurdish Autonomous Region in Iraq and even made overtures of supporting their independence as a separate state.
Rather, Turkish opposition stems from the fact that the main Kurdish organization in Syria, the YPG, has historically been closely related to the PKK, a Kurdish group inside Turkey which is internationally recognized as a terrorist organization and has carried out a long-running insurgency against the Turkish government.
These historic ties with the PKK, made worse by the manpower and material the PKK provided to the YPG during the siege of Kobane, means that Ankara regards an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan as a recruiting ground for the PKK.
As a result, it cannot accommodate the YPG as it did with Iraqi Kurdistan and sought instead to use a military intervention to break Kurdish power.
Opposing Iranian Influence
While Turkey’s primary motivation for a Syrian intervention would be to shore up domestic security, the Saudis’ would instead seek to secure regional security. Over the past decades, Saudi Arabia’s chief rival, Iran, has greatly expanded its regional influence, including now also Iraq in addition to their traditional clients in Syria and Lebanon.
This fear of encirclement by the Iranian-led “Shia crescent” has greatly informed Saudi policy in recent years, leading them to send troops to support the government in Bahrain during the Arab Spring and to initiate a bombing campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen last year.
The Saudis see the Syrian conflict as a way to repel Iranian influence by ousting Assad. So far they have done this primarily by providing material to the various opposition militias fighting the government.
Now that Russian air power has seriously weakened the rebels, Riyadh is forced to either intervene directly or resign itself to a continuation of Iranian influence in Syria.
While both states have clear motivations for intervening in Syria, the costs of doing so would be high. To uproot the YPG from the territory they currently control would require a massive intervention and a subsequent occupation of northeast Syria by Turkish troops.
An outright occupation would incur massive resentment among the Kurdish population and would cost Ankara dearly regarding blood and treasure.
For Saudi Arabia, pushing back Assad’s forces would require a massive commitment of men and weaponry, all of which would have to be maintained at a considerable distance from Saudi territory. Given the record deficits in the Saudi economy, these costs would be especially hard to bear.
Additionally, the presence of both Iranian and Russian forces in the area raises the specter of a broader conflict for both Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
While it is unlikely that any of these countries would intentionally seek to broaden the conflict, the deployment and support of Turkish and Saudi regular ground troops would increase the chance of an accidental incident which could prove difficult to de-escalate.
A Possible Limited Intervention?
Given the high costs and risks associated with a full-scale intervention, it is unlikely that either Saudi Arabia or Turkey will send large amounts of soldiers into Syria. Neither country could ill afford the cost of a full-scale engagement.
However, more limited interventions are possible. Turkey, in particular, seems likely to engage in this and has made a variety of statements contextualizing any operation against the YPG regarding recent operations against the PKK in Iraq – operations which involved small numbers of ground troops with air support fulfilling narrowly defined objectives before retreating.
Addendum: Whither ISIS?
Finally, it is worth considering how the Islamic State relates to all of this, as both Ankara and Riyadh have cited engaging ISIS militants as part of their justification for intervening in Syria.
It is highly unlikely that either Saudi Arabia or Turkey truly has an abiding interest in combatting ISIS, but are rather using the threat ISIS poses to the West as a justification for the intervention. This would hardly be a new strategy – when Turkey finally announced the start of a bombing campaign against ISIS in Syria in 2015, only a few of strikes were directed towards the Islamic State.
The rest of these were instead focused on containing the Kurds and the YPG. For both powers, attacking ISIS does little to advance their true interests, and as such carries a high opportunity cost.