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memri
May 1, 2015 No.
1156

As Saudi-Turkish-Qatari Relations Improve, Possibility Of 'Decisive Storm'-Type Operation In Syria Emerges

Operation "Decisive Storm" in Yemen, and the reports of warming Saudi-Turkish relations that preceded it, sparked hopes among opponents of the Assad regime in Syria that a similar operation could be carried out in that country. These hopes were in line with reports in Western and Arab media about the possibility of such a joint Saudi-Turkish-Qatari operation against the regime in Syria. However, others consider these hopes to be in vain, both because the Yemen operation did not accomplish its goals and because Egypt is opposed to such a move.

At the same time, the various opposition factions in the Idlib area in northwest Syria have won a series of strategic victories in the past month, most notably taking over the city of Jisr Al-Shughour and the Al-Qarmid army base. The main player in these triumphs, which followed a long period of difficulties and defeat, is Jaish Al-Fath ("The Army of Conquest") - a coalition of opposition factions formed in March 2015 comprising Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Jabhat Al-Nusra (JN) and other factions, both Islamist and moderate. These victories have led both regime and opposition elements to believe that the Syrian version of Operation Decisive Storm is already being carried out by Syrian opposition forces which receive aid from Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

The opposition's victories in northern Syria and the reports of a potential joint Saudi-Turkish operation in the country are of great concern to the Assad regime, which dispatched its defense minister to Iran to discuss "steps towards strategic cooperation between the two armies, in order to deal with regional threats."[1] Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem accused Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar of being behind the military escalation of "armed terrorist groups" in most of the regions, but particularly in Idlib.[2] In a statement to the UN Security Council, the Syrian Foreign Ministry called for a halt to Turkey's direct aggression against Syria and for punishing its perpetrators and supporters.[3]

It is possible that the reports of a joint Saudi-Turkish-Qatari military operation in Syria, and the opposition forces' recent intensive efforts on the ground, are aimed at pushing the Syrian regime towards accepting terms that are more favorable to the opposition and its supporters in the political process that is currently being drawn up under the sponsorship of UN Special Envoy for Syria Steffan de Mistura.

This paper will review the reports indicating a possible future Saudi-Turkish-Qatari military operation in Syria, as well as the possibility that the recent rebel victories were the result of covert aid by these countries:

 Efforts To Form Sunni Alliance Against Assad Regime

Even before the death of Saudi King 'Abdallah, the kingdom began efforts to form a Sunni alliance whose members would rise above their disagreements to operate against their common enemy, Iran. Following the king's death, his successor, King Salman, continued these efforts with Qatar, Turkey, and Egypt; their most noticeable outcome so far has been the Arab coalition that launched Operation Decisive Storm against the Houthis in Yemen, aimed at letting Iran know in no uncertain terms that it must cease its meddling in the Arab world.[4]

It was reported on April 12, 2015 that Saudi Arabia and Turkey were, with Qatari mediation, discussing the establishment of a military alliance to topple the Assad regime, which would include Turkish ground troops and the Saudi Air Force. The report also assessed that this operation would be launched only after the May 13, 2015 Camp David summit between President Obama and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders. It added that these talks were preceded by an agreement between the countries for increased aid to the Syrian opposition, and for expanded collaboration on security issues; also, that Turkey and Qatar had signed a security agreement on intelligence and military collaboration and on possibly stationing Turkish troops on Qatari soil and vice versa.[5]

The following day, leading Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi, formerly editor of the official daily Al-Watan, confirmed this report, tweeting that Turkey and Saudi Arabia had agreed to carry out a joint military operation in Syria, but adding: "In principle, th[is] report is true, but the details are not accurate. The plan is [still] in the process of formulation..."[6]

Prominent Saudi cleric Salman Al-'Odeh also assessed that an operation in Syria was forthcoming. On April 26, 2015, he tweeted: "Wait for a quality operation related to Syria in the coming days!"[7]

However, several hours later he clarified that the operation was to be a humanitarian mission.

The official Saudi daily Al-Watan stated, "The Iranian occupation of Syria will not continue. Even if the equation based on sectarian war and on dragging all the terrorist organizations into [Syria]... has lasted all these years, it will soon change... It is true that the political options for the near future are not encouraging... but the Syrians will surely rid themselves of all forms of terrorism, sectarianism, and militias."[8]

National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces president Khaled Khoja said that the improved Saudi-Turkish relations would impact events in Syria, and expressed hope for the emergence of a new regional axis for fighting the Syrian regime. He said: "The Saudi-Turkish rapprochement increases the new acceleration in the revolution, giving us greater confidence that a new axis is being formed."[9]

The Al-Shara' journal, which belongs to the forces of Syrian regime opponent and Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, stated that a Decisive Storm-like operation against the Assad regime was already underway. It reported that the April 24, 2015 bombing of Hizbullah positions in Al-Qalamoun, Lebanon - where, he said, there were long-range missiles that threatened Arab countries - was carried out as part of this operation.[10]

Syrian Regime-Affiliated Daily: Decisive Storm Already A Reality In Northern Syria, As Manifest In Bitter Battles Between Rebels, Regime

Some believe that the recent Saudi-Turkish rapprochement and understandings are concerned with aiding the armed Syrian opposition forces, and not necessarily with a joint Saudi-Turkish military operation. For example, on April 20, 2015, Jamal Khashoggi tweeted that Jaish Al-Islam[11] commander Zahran 'Alloush's visit to Turkey "has removed the final obstacle to Saudi-Turkish-Qatari collaboration in Syria."[12]

 

On April 27, 2015, following rebel victories in Syria, Khashoggi tweeted: "A great crisis will soon rock Lebanon. Tens of thousands of Alawites will flee towards Lebanon, which will be forced to close its borders. Hizbullah will apply pressure for the borders to be opened, while other forces will oppose this."

The following day, Khashoggi tweeted a photo of what he called "the beginning of the great escape [from Syria]."[13]

 

Others also maintain that the Saudi-Turkish understandings are already being actualized on the ground in Syria, in the form of the opposition's strategic military victories in recent months, particularly in Idlib in northern Syria. Thus, the daily Al-Safir, which is close to the Syrian regime, stated that the operation in Jisr Al-Shughour in Idlib province was a manifestation of "an established Qatari-Turkish-Saudi alliance in northern Syria... There is no need to ask whether Decisive Storm and the Saudi attack on Yemen would lead to similar action in Syria or not, because Decisive Storm is already a reality in northern Syria." The paper added that the formulation of the plan for the attack on northern Syria began in March 2015, and that the details were finalized when Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Naif visited Turkey on April 6, 2015.[14]

There are those in the National Coalition who likewise see the opposition forces' achievements in northern Syria as a manifestation of the Saudi-Turkish understandings. Thus, Syrian oppositionists told the liberal website Elaph about high-level Saudi-Turkish coordination in all domains, and said that the two sides were working towards a negotiated solution in Syria, which can only be achieved through military pressure on the regime. In their opinion, the recent opposition victories were one of the fruits of the Saudi-Turkish rapprochement, and Syrians would reap the benefits of this within six months.[15]

Decisive Storm also sparked hopes among the fighting forces on the ground. A high-ranking Free Syrian Army (FSA) officer told the London-based Qatari daily Al-Arabi Al-Jadid that the fighting factions were preparing for a widespread military operation in Dera'a, southern Syria, after receiving promises that there would be Arab aerial support, or that at the very least the FSA would be equipped with anti-aircraft missiles.[16]

Syrian Regime Concerned

These reports and signs that a Decisive Storm-type operation is currently underway, or will soon be, have caused great concern in the Syrian regime, especially in light of recent strategic opposition victories and in light of the fact that Saudi Arabia did not merely issue threats on the Yemen issue, but followed through on them. A video published by the Saudi Al-Arabiya TV channel shows high-ranking military commander Suheil Al-Hassan, known as "the Tiger," speaking on the phone with President Assad and asking him to dispatch weapons to 800 of his troops so they can return to their posts, from which they had retreated.[17] Another expression of te regime's concern was Syrian Defense Minister Fahd Jassem Al-Freij's "unannounced" visit to Tehran on April 28, 2015. The Syrian daily Al-Watan, which is close to the regime, wrote, "The visit is taking place in the shadow of increasing Saudi hints at an attack on Syria similar to Decisive Storm."[18] At a Tehran press conference, Al-Freij said that Damascus and Tehran had agreed on "future steps in the war against the terrorists."[19] At a meeting with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Dehghan, the two ministers stressed that "Syria, Iran, and the resistance axis will not allow the enemies to attain their goals in the region and harm Syria and its steadfastness." He added that Iran would continue its unlimited support for and strategic relations with Syria and "will not allow anyone to harm the security, stability, and unity of the Syrian state."[20]


Al-Freij meeting in Tehran with Ali Shamkhani (Source: SANA News Agency, Syria, April 29, 2015)

In fact, the Syrian regime explicitly holds Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar responsible for the oppositionist military operation in northern Syria, as manifested in its recent diplomatic attack on them. An announcement by the Syrian Foreign Ministry to the UN Security Council stated: "Attacks by armed groups on areas in Idlib and other cities, with the support of the Turkish military, constitute a direct attack on Syria by Turkey." The regime demanded that the Security Council halt the attack, punish its perpetrators and supporters, and take steps against the Turkish government.[21] During a Syrian government meeting, Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem said that "Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey are responsible for the military escalation by armed terrorist organizations in most areas, especially Idlib, via the support they provide, that has Zionist-American sponsorship."[22]

Difficulties Of Yemen Operation, Egypt's Objections Reduce Chances Of Overt Decisive Storm-Type Operation In Syria

Some think that there is no basis for the assessments that Saudi Arabia and Turkey would carry out an overt Decisive Storm-type operation in Syria, because of the difficulties Saudi Arabia encountered in Yemen, and also because Egypt objects to such a move. This is not the first time that Al-Sisi's Egypt has taken a stance on the Syrian crisis that diverges from that of its Saudi ally. Egypt also opposed the international coalition airstrikes against ISIS in Syria. Unlike the Saudis, Egypt has not defined Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad as illegitimate, and has stressed that it supports neither side. In fact, in recent months, there have been increasing signs that Egypt is working to promote a solution to the crisis that will include the Assad regime, as indicated by Mundhir Khaddam, an official in the oppositionist Syrian National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, who said: "Egypt cannot agree to a Decisive Storm against Syria... The Egyptian regime has told us and others that no solution in Syria can be possible without the [Assad] regime's involvement."[23]  

 

* N. Mozes and E. Ezrahi are research fellows at MEMRI.

 

Endnotes:

 

[1] Al-Watan (Syria), April 29, 2015.

[2] Champress.net, April 28, 2015.

[3] Syria-news.com, April 28, 2015.

[5] Huffingtonpost.com, April 12, 2015.

[6] Twitter.com/Jkhashoggi, April 13, 2015.

[7] Twitter.com/salman_alodah, April 26, 2015.

[8] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), April 28, 2015.

[9] Al-Hayat (London), April 28, 2015.

[10] Al-Shara' (Lebanon), April 28, 2015.

[11] A Salafi group and member of the Islamic Front, which mainly operates in the Damascus area and is considered one of the largest Islamist organizations combating the Assad regime.

[12] Twitter.com/Jkhashoggi, April 20, 2015.

[13] Twitter.com/Jkhashoggi, April 28, 2015.

[14] Al-Safir (Lebanon), April 27, 2015.

[15] Elaph.com, April 27, 2015.

[16] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), April 28, 2015.

[17] Alarabiya.net, April 30, 2015.

[18] Al-Watan (Syria), April 29, 2015.

[19] Tasnimnews.com, April 29, 2015.

[20] Al-Watan (Syria), April 29, 2015.

[21] Syria-news.com, April 28, 2015.

[22] Champress.net, April 28, 2015.

[23] Al-Watan (Syria), April 27, 2015.