Ever since the US and Saudi Arabia announced a joint intention to send Saudi military regulars to the illegally US occupied regions of north-eastern Syria, many have remarked on the irony of sending military regulars from a country that has largely failed in its hybrid war in Syria in the form of the Takfiri terrorists and mercenaries funded directly by the Saudi state. There is something of a tragi-comic and farsical element to this, not least because the Saudi military has not been able to win a war against a poorly armed, and globally isolated ragtag group of Houthi fighters who are prone to infighting with their allies in Yemen, in spite of now having the third most handsomely funded military in the world, just behind the US and China.
But beyond this element of apparent farce lies a US strategy that has little to do with the political developments in Damascus and everything to do with provoking a different conflict. At present, Turkey and Saudi Arabia’s bilateral relations are at their lowest levels since the founding of the founding of the modern Saudi state in the 1920s and the US is trying to seize this opportunity to its own long-term strategic advantage.
The poor relations between Riyadh and Ankara stem from the following
–Turkey is attempting to and largely succeeding at replacing cash rich Saudi Arabia as the leading voice representing the wider ‘Sunni street’ in much of the Middle East and the Muslim world beyond. While Saudi Arabia is able to easily funnel money into various soft-power Sunni/Islamist projects from the Balkans to south east Asia/Africa to the Caucasus, Turkey’s Sunni soft power projection under President Erdogan has been far more effective. This is due to the fact that President Erdogan is a more effective communicator than any prominent Saudi and also because Turkey is a strong and highly sophisticated state while Saudi Arabia, in spite of attempts to reform, remains a socially and politically underdeveloped monarchy. Furthermore, while Erdogan promotes a kind of 21st century democratic Islam with Ottoman characteristics, Saudi Arabia’s brand of Wahhabism is seen as far to extreme even for those who favour political Islam over secularism. Because of this, Turkey is winning the ‘Sunni information war’ and the Saudi leaders know it.
–When Saudi Arabia instigated the ongoing Qatar crisis in 2017, they underestimated the strength of those coming to Qatar’s aid. Turkey was among the first countries to send an army contingent to Qatari soil when the crisis began and President Erodgan has made his support for Doha apparent. Turkey’s support for Qatar against Saudi Arabia continues and shows no signs of abating.
–In the global 21st century scramble for north-west Africa, while Saudi Arabia continues to be a patron of geographically African but culturally Levantine Egypt, when it comes to Sudan, Turkey has developed a meaningful relationship with the leadership in Khartoum and is working intensely with the Sudanese authorities to rebuild the old Ottoman Port Suakin which is a short Red Sea boat journey away from the Saudi city of Jeddah. Crucially, Suakin formed an old Ottoman route to Mecca for Muslims on the Hajj. This fact is something Erdogan has played up when promoting the Turkish project at Suakin. While Saudi Arabia has used its custody over the holy cities of Mecca and Medina as a means to try and take geopolitical ownership of the Hajj, Turkey is now challenging Riyadh for this title and many in the Arab world would actually prefer the Hajj to be geopolitically ‘owned’ by its old Ottoman supervisors.
–As Palestine continues to dominate headlines due to the Great March of Return which itself was partly provoked by the US decision to move its Embassy to “Israel” from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem/Al-Quds, the contrast between the Turkish and Saudi position on the issue could not be greater. While Turkey was the first Muslim majority state to establish diplomatic relations with “Israel”, today it is Saudi Arabia that enjoys an incredibly strong de-facto friendshi with Tel Aviv while Turkey’s President has taken up the Palestinian cause and has called the “Israeli” regime leader a “terrorist”. By contrast, a recent leaked statement attributed to Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman revealed that the de-facto Saudi rule said that Palestinians should “shut up” and accept a humiliating “peace treaty” with the occupier. While Saudi Arabia no longer even pretends to support Palestine, among those who care about the issue, Erdogan’s Turkey is doing what Arab states used to do when it comes to Palestine.
A clash in Syria
For the aforementioned reasons and because recent statements from Riyadh have indicated some levels of erstwhile unknown support for PKK aligned Kurdish terrorists in Syria, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are totally at odds over the Syrian situation. This has already come to fruition in Idlib where various Saudi backed militant groups are engaged in a civil war with some Turkish backed and formerly Turkish backed groups.
As is the case with the US encouraging the deployment of French troops to north-east Syria, Washington clearly wants uniformed soldiers who are not Americans to create a human shield separating US forces from the Turkish forces that are rapidly approach US occupied parts of northern Syria as part of the ongoing Operation Olive Branch. While the US and Turkey do not want to clash in Syria, their interests are already clashing as the US refuses to withdraw its support from PKK aligned YPG terrorists fighting under the so-called SDF banner, while Turkey refuses to allow the US to set up a would-be radical Kurdish terror statelet on Turkey’s border.
America uses its Saudi ally as human shields against both the Turkish Army and anti-YPG/pro-Damascus genuine rebels
The US wants a buffer between its own forces and Turkish forces while it also crucially wants a buffer from the ongoing Arab revolt against Kurdish occupation going on in and around Raqqa. While hardly reported by mainstream or alt-media, local Arabs who have been displaced by Kurdish groups intent on ethnically cleansing parts of northern Syria, have begun a genuine moderate rebellion against the YPG/SDF and their US overlords. This rebellion which is still in its very early days could easily spiral into a Vietcong style insurgency against the US and its SDF minions.
Few in the US have the stomach to subject already heated US public opinion to an Iraq insurgency 2.0 and because of this, Donald Trump recently stated his intention to withdraw US troops from Syria. While Trump was rebuffed by other pro-war Washington elites, a clear compromise has been reached where US troops will fall behind their French and possibly Saudi counterparts, thus satisfying those in the Pentagon who seek a continued west-friendly occupation of northern Syria, while satisfying Trump who both wants to avoid Iraq 2.0 while also seeking to gain personal satisfaction from other countries wasting their money on an ultimately futile Syrian occupation.
Leading weak Saudi forces into the Turkish firing line
With US troops safely guarding Syria’s stolen oil fields, there is every possibility that Saudi troops, if deployed, will end up clashing with both local Arab rebels and Turkish forces. Crucially, while Turkey has no desire to fight the US and Arab rebels realise that fighting the US won’t be easy, when it comes to fighting Saudi Arabia, pro-Damascus Arab rebels salivate at the chance to fight against an enemy of the wider Resistance Axis while Turkey would likely have no reservations about firing on Saudi troops if they were deployed to YPG occupied areas like Manbij.
The fact of the matter is that unlike US troops or even French troops, in the eyes of Arab rebels, pro-Ankara Arabs and Turkish forces, the Saudi military would be seen as target practice. Saudi soldiers are notorious for their poor training, their cowardice and their total lack of discipline. While the US certainly seeks to provoke Turkey on its borders, there is little doubt that the US would refrain from attacking Turkey in the event of a skirmish with Saudi troops.
In this sense, the US is using Saudi Arabia as patsies in Syria. They are a clear provocation both to pro-Damascus Arabs and to Turkey, but at the same time, their incredibly unremarkable military record means that the US won’t likely do anything to come to their rescue if and when they clash with local Arabs and Turks in northern Syria. In this sense, while the Saudis often have an upper hand in shaping US views on the Middle East, in this case, the US has an upper hand in playing Saudi Arabia’s bloating regional ambitions like a fiddle, all while outsourcing the US objective of provoking Turkey as much as possible while avoiding direct confrontation.