Casting aside U.S. concerns about aiding extremist groups, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have converged on an aggressive new strategy to bring down Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The two countries — one a democracy, the other a conservative kingdom — have for years been at odds over how to deal with Assad, their common enemy. But mutual frustration with what they consider American indecision has brought the two together in an alliance that is driving rebel gains in northern Syria, and has helped strengthen a new coalition of anti-Assad insurgents, Turkish officials say.
That is provoking concern in the United States, which does not want rebel groups uniting to topple Assad. The Obama administration worries that the revived rebel alliance could put a more dangerous radical Islamist regime in Assad’s place, just as the U.S. is focused on bringing down Islamic State. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issues, said the administration is concerned that the new alliance is helping Nusra gain territory in Syria.
The coordination between Turkey and Saudi Arabia reflects renewed urgency and impatience with the Obama administration’s policy in the region. Saudi Arabia previously kept its distance and funding from some anti-Assad Islamist groups at Washington’s urging, according to Turkish officials. Saudi Arabia and Turkey also differed about the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Syrian opposition. Turkey supports it, while the Saudis consider it a threat; that has translated into differences on the ground — until recently.
Turkish officials say the Obama administration has disengaged from Syria as it focuses on rapprochement with Iran. While the U.S. administration is focused on degrading Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, they say it has no coherent strategy for ending the rule of Assad, Iran’s key ally in the region.
Under Turkish and Saudi patronage, the rebel advance has undermined a sense that the Assad government is winning the civil war — and demonstrated how the new alliance can yield immediate results.
“It’s a different world now in Syria, because the Saudi pocketbook has opened and the Americans can’t tell them not to do it,” said Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “It’s quite clear that Salman has prioritized efforts against Iran over those against the Muslim Brotherhood.”
The Turkish-Saudi agreement has led to a new joint command center in northeastern Syria. There, a coalition of groups — including Nusra and other Islamist brigades such as Ahrar al-Sham that Washington views as extremist — are progressively eroding Assad’s front. The rebel coalition also includes more moderate elements of the Free Syrian Army that have received U.S. support in the past.
Landis said that it is a dangerous game — especially for Turkey.
“The cautionary tale is that every power in the Middle East has tried to harness the power of Islamists to their own ends,” he said, noting that Assad’s government also backed Islamists in Iraq who later turned their guns on him. “It always seems to blow back.”