Russian-backed Syrian and Kurdish offensives in the northwestern Syrian Aleppo region have infuriated Ankara and Riyadh. After all that was the region where they had given support to various armed Islamist groups arrayed against the regime of Bashar al-Assad: An endeavour which may soon be jeopardized by a Russian-Syrian victory and a closure of that northwestern frontier by either the Syrian military and the Kurds, who have their own interest in sealing it since it is the logistical life-line for many Islamist militants.
Consequently the Turks have sought to stop an advance by the Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG) across the northwestern Jarablus-Azaz corridor. The 60-mile stretch of territory they do not want the YPG to control and where they have long threatened to intervene to stop them. And where, incidentally, Islamic State (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra maintain a presence. The Turks have, predictably, only tried to stop them with cross-border artillery attacks.
As pointed out in another column, since the Russian intervention in Syria and the downing by Turkey of the Russian warplane last November Turkey cannot feasibly send either its air or ground forces into Syria without risking a clash with the Russians, it can bombard the Kurds from its own territory with artillery without running such a risk since the only way the Russians could forcibly stop them would be to conduct a cross-border raid against the Turkish military. Something which could potentially risk a NATO response.
Recent Saudi and Turkish talk about sending in ground forces may amount to just that, talk. As has long been the case with its calls for a no-fly zone and safe-zone in northern Syria since 2012 Ankara has always said it is ready and willing to intervene immediately after Washington takes the lead. The Saudis have declared that they have made the decision to deploy troops but will not do so until the U.S. goes in with them. Something which is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
And while both Ankara and Riyadh claim their recent readiness to intervene on the ground is to combat ISIS rapidly moving events on the ground in Syria make clear that their readiness is more likely rooted on halting and reversing the setbacks being afflicted against their allies as opposed to anything else. Additionally the nature of their recent posturing indicates that they are bluffing about such a move. Which will make their hand appear much weaker.
The Saudi deployment to Turkey’s southeastern Incirlik airbase will reportedly amount to a mere four fighter jets scheduled to arrive at the end of this month. A token number when it comes to making any fundamental difference on-the-ground in Syria or attempting to deter the Russians, who have deployed their top-of-the-line Su-30 and Su-35 Flanker air superiority jets to give air cover to their airstrikes across Syria. Moscow is itching to avenge the downing of its warplane. It and Damascus’s hand could well be strengthened by some haphazard Saudi and Turkish attempt to secure the supply lines to their proxies in the northwest by crossing the Syrian border and attempting to establish a small buffer zone: Turkey wants to push 10 kilometers deep into Syria to protect its aforementioned proxies. Any Russian-Syrian counterattack against those forces would see Ankara unable to invoke Article 5 of the NATO Charter (which necessitates a response from the alliance if one of its members is attacked) since Ankara will have initiated the clash by crossing south of its frontier.
Turkey’s former Foreign Minister Yaser Yakis warned, in an interview to Today’s Zaman this month, that Turkey risks potentially losing the frontier province of Hatay if it goes into Syria now. That province became independent of Syria during the French Mandate and subsequently was annexed by Turkey. Something which was never accepted by Damascus. If Syrian forces, with Russian assistance, repelled a Saudi/Turkish infiltration and then broke, even briefly, into Hatay and seized a portion of territory, claiming it like Saddam Hussein claimed Kuwait, Damascus might have a propaganda coup: ‘Not only did we push out the invaders,’ they could claim, ‘but we also showed we have the potential to take back Hatay one day.’
Expanding to seize a piece of enemy territory and holding it, albeit for even a brief period, during such a war is a good way of conveying an impression of strength to a subject populace. During the Gulf War in 1991 when Saddam Hussein’s forces were being relentlessly pounded by a superior armada he delegated significant military forces and resources to launch a ground offensive against the Saudi town of Khafji, just to show that he had the potential to not only withstand enemy attacks, but to expand into their territory. A brief foray into Hatay with Russian air cover could be Assad’s attempt to try and convey a similar message to his supporter and enemies alike.
If it does come to that. However, both Turkey and Saudi Arabia seem to be doing little more than posturing and flailing frantically and furiously while their proxy supported efforts to depose the Assad regime in Syria founder.
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.