By Emile Hokayem
December 30, 2016
Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, three of the Middle East’s major Sunni powers, once equated their standings in the region with the outcome of the war in Syria. Since the uprising broke out in 2011, they have been stalwart — if often divided — supporters of the rebels in their fight against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
In the last several months, it became clear they were on the losing side. Recent events, including the fall of eastern Aleppo this month, are compelling these countries to adjust their strategies. A cease-fire agreement brokered by Russia and Turkey and announced on Thursday has only made it clearer that in the Middle East, force drives diplomacy.
The mainstream rebel groups that Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have backed since 2011 are now morphing into a rural insurgency. This will mean they are less of a threat to the Assad government, but more vulnerable to being defeated by jihadist groups — or lured into joining them. Supporting these rebels will soon become even more difficult, especially if President-elect Donald J. Trump follows through on campaign pledges to end American aid to rebel groups and to work more closely with Russia to fight jihadists in Syria.
For Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, this situation raises major moral and political questions: If military victory is no longer feasible, why should they continue to support rebels at the cost of more Syrian lives? Can they and their rebel proxies carve out zones of influence that will allow them to shape Syria’s future? Should the rebellion’s sponsors cut their losses and force the rebels to capitulate in exchange for whatever favor Russia is able to offer, such as facilitating Turkish policy in Central Asia or helping Saudi Arabia extricate itself from Yemen? Or should they let the rebellion slowly die? Wouldn’t doing so only encourage Iranian aggressiveness and prove right the jihadist groups that say Arab countries are impotent and treacherous?
Of the three Sunni powers, Turkey has the deepest involvement. Last summer, it sent troops across the border to push back the Islamic State and to contain Kurdish groups in Syria (and in Turkey) seeking autonomy. Since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has lost favor with Washington and Europe over his domestic crackdown and foreign adventures, his fortunes are now tied to Russian good will. Moscow is exploiting Turkey’s weakness and feelings of resentment of Western betrayal.
The Kremlin is now not only acting like the magnanimous victor in Syria, but also posing as the sole mediator between Ankara and Mr. Assad’s government and Iran. This month, Moscow hosted a meeting of the foreign and defense ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey at which they discussed the future of Syria. This was a sign of things to come.
First Russia outwitted and sidelined the United States, the European Union and the United Nations. Now it is shaping the future of the conflict. The cease-fire that it has brokered is meant to manage rivalries in Syria and wind down the war on Russian and Mr. Assad’s terms. Moscow has suggested that the cease-fire be followed by political discussions with select groups of the Syrian opposition. But for this to work, Russia needs Turkey to deliver parts of the Syrian opposition that will accept considerably less than Mr. Assad’s departure.
Mr. Assad may not like it, but he is likely to accept this Russia-run process as a necessary evil. He has to play nice with President Vladimir V. Putin, his savior, even if he won’t concede much. Bringing Turkey on board is necessary to jump-start a peace process that will gut whatever is left of the United States and United Nations effort once meant to bring about a political transition — and Mr. Assad’s departure. What’s more, it would tie the hands of the Trump administration. Should the cease-fire collapse, the Assad government would still be able to crush the remnants of the rebellion with Russian cover. This arrangement will also prevent Kurdish autonomy — something that Mr. Assad, Iran and Russia, and Turkey all oppose.
All this leaves Qatar and, more important, Saudi Arabia with very little to work with. Both countries have in the past had to move weapons and money through Jordan and Turkey to support the rebellion; these routes are now difficult if not impossible. Unable to shape the battlefield or steer diplomacy, a bruised and overextended Saudi Arabia has quietly pushed Syria down its list of priorities.
The two Gulf states also understand that Turkey won’t subordinate its interests to their desires. In fact, Turkey is now arguing that its involvement in the Russia-led diplomacy is essential to check Iran’s ambitions, secure the withdrawal of Hezbollah and other foreign Shiite militias from Syria and obtain assurances that Mr. Assad will eventually be eased out. Turkey is seeking to include Qatar and Saudi Arabia in this process, to the displeasure of Iran.
None of these countries are likely to fully abandon what remains of the Syrian rebellion. The costs of doing so would be immense: their reputations would suffer greatly, and they would forfeit cards essential to influence the direction Syria takes. And Syrian rebels won’t disappear just because they were defeated. Instead, formal support and funding is likely to continue but at decreasing levels and with more modest objectives. Turkey still needs rebel muscle to fight the Islamic State and the Kurdish guerrillas. Saudi Arabia and Qatar can’t afford to be accused of having abandoned their Sunni brethren at a time of regional polarization.
They will also resist efforts by a number of Western, Asian and Arab countries to normalize relations with Mr. Assad. In their eyes, he remains a hostile actor who should be isolated and pushed out. How and when are questions for another day.
Emile Hokayem is a Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.