I was watching open source media this past weekend and read a report where Turkish F-16’s were scrambled to shoot down a Syrian warplane that had violated its airspace. For Turkey being a member of NATO definitely has it’s advantages but this situation isn’t one of them. You can bet Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan is probably sick of fielding calls from the United States and the rest of NATO urging him to have restraint. Even though Turkey may want to, the repercussions of overt military action against the Syrian regime would be too dangerous.
If Ankara wanted to they could “shock and awe” Damascus into submission in probably a little under 48 hours. Turkey has one of the most capable militaries in the entire region. They’re on the same level as countries like France, Germany, and Russia. And this is exactly what Turkey wants to do. Toppling a brutal dictator like Assad would solidify Turkey as the leader of the Islamic world. Something Ankara gave up after WW1 when the Ottoman Empire fell. It’s really hard not to see them reclaim that birthright. They’ve just been distracted by the fallout of two world wars.
The one thing holding Turkey back is their NATO membership. If Turkey attacks the Syrian national army on Syrian soil how long before Iran counter attacks? How long before Russia jumps in? Turkey would claim NATO article 5 the moment Iran or Russia stepped in and that would bring in the rest of the world.
So we’re left with a war in Syria fought covertly. It’s a war that multiple nations are fighting but no one can admit it publicly. So many countries have covert stakes invested in this war that it’s confusing to realize whose side they’re on and what they ultimately want. It’s no wonder the rebels are so splintered and chaotic. They’re getting pulled in multiple directions by multiple actors.
Here is a quick breakdown of the players. This is just a glance and I’m leaving a lot out but even in summary it gets confusing.
For Syria and Assad -
Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia. The Iranian/Hezbollah alliance is obvious and easy to understand. Syria has been an ally of Iran since the Iranian revolution of 1979. They’ve been tight ever since.
Iran saw an opening after the U.S. led invasion of Iraq. Iran saw the possibility for a sphere of influence from Tehran, through Baghdad, all the way to Damascus. That’s been their geopolitical play for the past decade.
Russia’s dog in this fight is a little murkier. Russia has the obvious interest in their long time naval port at Tartus, but you have to read between the lines to see their real interests. Symbolically their support for Assad shows Russia’s periphery and even their own people that populist uprisings can be managed/crushed by a determined government. This has so far worked in Syria but not so much in Ukraine. They also want to slow the construction of natural gas pipelines from the southern gas corridor up into Western Europe. Two proposed pipelines may eventually run straight through Syria, through Turkey, then on into Europe. Restricting natural gas diversification in western Europe is one of Moscow’s main strategic goals in this decade and through the next half century.
For the rebels -
Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and the rest of the west.
Turkey is poised to take over as the leader of the Islamic World once again.
- They successfully maintained good ties with the west but at the same time oriented themselves toward the middle east.
- They’ve re-established relations with Iran and have been a go between/mediator for the Arab nations and for the west/middle east as well.
- Turkey controls the upper courses of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers which is the main source of water to most of the Arab world.
- Ever since the Ottoman Empire Turkey has been able to balance their political system with Islam. They’ve carried that over to present day and they’re the best chance to lead the “democratic Islam” experiment that the Arab Spring kicked off.
Turkey has lately taken a less aggressive and overt tone but they’re still major players. Much of the weapons, soldiers, and aid come across Turkish border crossings. It’s interesting to note how the current political problems and social unrest have forced Ankara to put their Syrian agenda on the back burner. In fact many of the recent protest areas have come from Kurdish dominated neighborhoods. Both Syria and Iran have used the Kurdish card in the past to cause internal problems in Turkey. Something to keep an eye on.
Now here’s where it gets even more confusing. Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar desire the same outcome. The ultimate defeat of Bashar al-Assad. They also both support rebel groups that are fighting Assad’s regime. However, they both disagree with whom should ultimately control Syria. Qatar and Turkey favor a Muslim Brotherhood dominated Syria and are thus funding/supplying those groups. Saudi Arabia fears the Brotherhood and is funding/supplying alternate Salafi groups that SA could control in the long run.
No one hears much about the Free Syria Army (FSA) anymore. Just a couple years ago they were the largest and most effective rebel collective in the conflict. However, the West and the Muslim Brotherhood were too overt in their support. This had the effect of alienating the hard liners. Groups such as al-Nusra and ISIS used this as a rallying call to recruit thousands to their banners further splintering the rebel ranks.
After the FSA fallout and the rise of al-Nusra and ISIS Saudi Arabia began funding alternate groups to combat the radicals. The result was a group called the Islam Army. The problem was that they were running into some of the same problems that the FSA did. Alienating the hard liners.
Qatar stepped back in and formed an alliance called the Islamic Front that incorporated the Islam Army into their ranks. The current members are:
- The Islamic Ahrar al-Sham Movement
- The Kurdish Islamic Front
- The Islam Army
- The Ansar al-Sham Battalions
- The Haq Brigade
- The Tawhid Brigade
- The Suqour al-Sham Brigades
This alliance is currently the most effective and numerous rebel fighting force in Syria. It incorporates both hard line radical groups and moderates. Rather than supporting them outright and overtly the current benefactors are attempting to remain hidden.
The tug of war match between Qatar/Turkey and Saudi Arabia has severely crippled the rebel campaign. It has effectively deadlocked the war. The Syrian regime makes gains then the rebels make gains. It’s constantly shifting. The Syrian army is well funded/supplied but is too spread thin. The rebels are meagerly funded/supplied but have effectively opened up enough fronts in the war that Assad can’t fight all at once.The question has come down to who can last the longest. It’s a lose lose whichever way you look at it. If Assad wins then he’ll be seen as a brutal dictator that was successful in oppressing his people. If the rebels win they’ll inherit a country ripe with extremists. It’ll take the combined effort of the entire Islamic world to guide Syria’s future. My guess is it’ll be a Qatari funded but Turkish led Syrian democracy.