An unprecedented escalation between Syrian and Turkish armies has recently erupted in Syria, as Damascus has been seeking to retake the northwestern province of Idlib from Turkish forces.
In an attack carried out by Syrian government forces on February 10, five Turkish soldiers were killed. Turkey’s Defense Ministry said its forces rapidly retaliated against the Assad regime by striking 115 Syrian government targets under its rules of engagement and its right to legitimate self-defense. This came a week after eight Turkish military personnel and at least 13 Syrian government troops were killed in a similar attack by Syrian forces.
Syria’s parliament has also recognized on February 13, the 1915-1917 murder of up to 1.5 million Armenians as genocide.
After last week’s talks in Ankara, Russian and Turkish delegations held two-day talks in Moscow on February 17-18 to discuss the situation in Idlib. The Russian Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that Russia and Turkey reiterated their commitment to existing agreements on Syria’s Idlib which seek to reduce tensions in the region. However, an agreement on stopping the Syrian government’s offensive in Idlib does not seem to have been reached yet.
“Our main objective is to return to the terms set forth by the Sochi agreement for Idlib,” Turkish Presidential spokesperson İbrahim Kalın said on Tuesday. “Russia’s proposals during the Idlib talks have so far proved unacceptable for Turkey.” Kalin noted that what is important for Ankara “is the recognition of borders set by our observation points, and the cessation of attacks by the Assad regime.”
“Both the Turks and Russians each blame the other for breaking previous agreements on Idlib, so in order to de-escalate the situation, its seems as if a new Russian-Turkish understanding will have to come about, but probably not before Russia allows the Syrian government to gain a bit more ground in Idlib to improve its strategic position,” David Lesch, professor of Middle East History at Trinity University in Texas, told Inside Arabia.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has, reportedly, threatened on Wednesday, February 19, to launch an operation in Idlib by the end of the month if Damascus fails to withdraw behind Turkish military positions. Although the chance of a full-scale Syrian-Turkish war is unlikely, the elevated tensions mark a significant escalation in the nine-year-old conflict.
Although the chance of a Syrian-Turkish war is unlikely, the clashes and elevated tensions mark a significant escalation in the nine-year-old conflict.
So, what do the current clashes between Damascus and Ankara mean for their ties with the Gulf states?
Arguably, while countries such as Qatar and Oman do not seem to have significantly changed their positions regarding the Syrian civil war, there are others whose relations with Turkey and Syria appear to have altered.
In December 2018, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which once supported the Syrian opposition forces alongside Saudi Arabia and Qatar, reopened its embassy in Syria. The UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, justified the move on Twitter. “Given the regional expansionism of Iran and Turkey, there is an Arab role to play in Syria that has become even more necessary,” he tweeted.
Since then, the gap between Abu Dhabi and Ankara seems to have grown, as the UAE is backing the commander of the Libyan National Army – Khalifa Haftar, and in contrast Turkey is now supporting Fayez al-Sarraj, chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya and prime minister of the internationally recognized Government of National Accord.
A day after the UAE reopened its embassy, the Bahraini Ministry of Foreign Affairs also announced the continuation of the work of its embassy in Syria. The ministry affirmed the keenness of Bahrain to continue relations with the Syrian Arab Republic and the importance of enhancing and activating the Arab role in preserving Syria’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity; and to prevent the dangers of regional interference in its internal affairs and progress.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s relations with Turkey have been worsening, particularly in the aftermath of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 at his country’s consulate in Istanbul. These tensions seem to have impacted Riyadh’s position toward Ankara’s actions.
Saudi Arabia’s relations with Turkey have been worsening, particularly in the aftermath of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018.
Despite the fact that in 2016, Saudi Arabia expressed its support of Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield in northern Syria, last October, Saudi Arabia (alongside the UAE and Bahrain) opposed Turkey’s military operation – “Peace Spring” – against Kurdish forces.
There also have been signs over the last few years that indicate Riyadh has been getting closer to the Kurds than in the past. In October 2017, the Saudi Gulf Affairs Minister reportedly visited northern Syria with Brett McGurk – then-US special envoy to the coalition against Islamic State (ISIS) – to meet with the Raqqa Civil Council and discuss the reconstruction of Raqqa—a Kurdish city devastated by the civil war and previously under ISIS control.
Moreover, Riyadh announced in August 2018 that it will contribute $100 million for stabilization projects in areas liberated by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeastern Syria, with a special focus on Raqqa.
Saudi minister for Gulf affairs, Thamer Al-Sabhan, also reportedly conducted an unexpected visit to Deir ez-Zor in Syria in June 2019, where he met with Kurdish leaders, US officials, and a number of Arab sheikhs and dignitaries.
Abdul Hamid al-Mehbash, co-chair of the Kurdish Executive Council of the Autonomous Administration in northeastern Syria, told Al-Monitor, “Sabhan discussed the latest developments in the region and stressed his country’s support for the stability of northeastern Syria. He called on the Arab tribes to support the SDF, to maintain stability and security.”
Moreover, pro-government Al Watan newspaper reported last month that Syria’s permanent representative to the United Nations had attended a ceremony with Saudi Arabia’s Minister of State, who called for a restoration of relations.
“Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the immediate sense see Turkey as more of a threat to them than Iran, which is why both countries have improved relations with the Syrian government of late.”
“Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the immediate sense see Turkey as more of a threat to them than Iran, which is why both countries have improved relations with the Syrian government of late,” said Lesch, author of “Syria: A Modern History.”
This shift highlights a significant development: Idlib now appears to be another reason for some Gulf states to move closer to Damascus, due to their tensions with Turkey and improved relations with the Syrian government.
“The US has entered the diplomatic fray in Idlib by reiterating its support for the Turkish position, most likely in an attempt to drive a wedge between Russia and Turkey, in essence giving Russia a little bit of its own medicine regarding its attempts to pry away Ankara from NATO and the US,” Lesch added. “But the Saudis and Emiratis can only go so far if the US continues supporting the Turkish position.”