Donald Trump has just announced that the US will be ending the $230 million per annum funding that Washington had been giving to anti-Ba’athist groups in Syria dating back to the Obama years. According to Trump, Saudi Arabia and other “rich countries” in the region will instead fill the void left by the cessation of US funds.
The United States has ended the ridiculous 230 Million Dollar yearly development payment to Syria. Saudi Arabia and other rich countries in the Middle East will start making payments instead of the U.S. I want to develop the U.S., our military and countries that help us!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 18, 2018
Trump’s statement immediately raised more questions than it offered answers for several reasons. First of all, as the Syria conflict draws to a close, it is clear that the Syrian government has consolidated its military victories throughout the nation and is once again in control of the majority of Syrian territory with the exception of Idlib Governorate, the northernmost parts of Aleppo Governorate and parts of north western Syria.
While some are suggesting that Turkey or pro-Ankara fighters in Idlib will soon come under attack by Syrian and allied forces in Idlib, a carefully worded statement from Vyacheslav Volodin, the Speaker of the Russian Duma stated that Russia’s partners Turkey and Iran have both played an invaluable role in fighting terror in Syria. According to Volodin who spoke beside his Turkish counterpart Binali Yildirim,
“Russia, Turkey and Iran have joined efforts on combating terrorism and helped the Syrian government to fight against the terrorist state (Daesh). And now, peace has come to the long-suffering Syrian land”.
This statement helps to quash the disinformation emanating from unverified reports that somehow Syria and Turkey (or pro-Turkish forces) will inevitably clash in Idlib. Clearly as the most influential party to the Syria conflict, Russia will simply not allow its Turkish and Syrian partners to fight one another and furthermore it is clear that Russia has the necessary influence to prevent any such clashes that may be desired by more radical elements on the ground.
In fact, far from forces loyal to the Syrian President being in danger of clashing with Turkish forces, it has been in northern Syria where Turkish forces have come worryingly close to fighting with the United States which continues to back the Syrian arm of the PKK terror group, the YPG. While a recent agreement has been struck between Ankara and Washington to cooperate in the northern Syrian city of Manbij in order to remove the YPG/PKK, assurances from the US that the agreement will not be impacted by the otherwise dismal state of relations between Turkey and the US has failed to convince many observers in Turkey who worry that the Manbij roadmap may soon collapse.
It has long been suggested by Donald Trump (though confusingly contradicted by other American officials) that the US seeks a phased withdrawal from north-eastern Syria while other US allies will fill this void. In addition to France, Saudi Arabia has been named as a country whose armed forces could possibly take over the American “duties” in north-eastern Syria. But even forgetting the illegality of any Saudi presence in Syria, the very thought of Saudi Arabia establishing either a financial or physical presence in north-eastern Syria raises major questions regarding America’s long term position vis-a-vis Turkey.
At present, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have generally poor relations. Qatar’s recent pledge to inject $15 billion into the Turkish economy will only magnify the realities of a long term Turkish partnership with Saudi Arabia’s major Arab rival. While elements of the Pentagon remain supportive of the long-time Turkey-US alliance, other members of the wider US government have fully embraced a position of hostility against a fellow NATO member.
The influence of the generally pro-Ankara Pentagon does offer some level of assurance that the situation in Manbij and neighbouring regions of northern Syria will likely not immediately break down in terms of Turkish-US cooperation. That being said, if US forces in the wider regions of Syria’s north are replaced by Saudi forces or Saudi paid mercenaries, all bets are off.
Any direct confrontation between US and Turkish forces would represent a clearly objective disaster from the perspective of top military brass in both nations. However, as anti-Turkish elements of the US intelligence agencies, the Treasury and parts of the State Department look to intensify anti-Turkish policies, Ankara must now be prepared for the possibility of anti-Turkish elements of the US effectively using Saudi forces as anti-Turkish proxies in Syria.
When the aforementioned scenario is extrapolated to is logical conclusion, it is now conceivable that Turkish and Saudi forces could face off against one another in Syria. While Turkey’s military is vastly superior to that of Saudi Arabia, because of Saudi Arabia’s readily available supply of liquid cash assets, it is possible that Riyadh could fund specifically anti-Turkish mercenaries to bolster the YPG/PKK in order to foment a lingering security issue on Turkey’s border. Crucially, unlike the US, Saudi Arabia would have little to lose in a geo-strategic sense by antagonising its Turkish rival in Syria. One could even imagine Riyadh justifying such a move as “retaliation” for the presence of Turkish troops in Qatar even though Turkey’s presence in Qatar is completely legal while a Saudi presence in Syria would be completely illegal.
With reports dating from May of this year suggesting that Riyadh is already funding the YPG/PKK in Syria, it could well be that the US might simply diminish its presence in Syria and replace it with a militarily inferior Saudi presence but crucially one that has far less to lose in directly (or indirectly) antagonising Turkish forces and funding terror groups that pose a threat to Turkey’s security.
Turkish officials must therefore be prepared for such a scenario, one which could interestingly strengthen its already healthy partnerships with Russia and Iran and interestingly put Turkey and Syria on the same page in a very meaningful strategic sense.