The Turkish-Saudi axis in Syria: Finding the right military tune

Turkey and Saudi Arabia are watching developments in Syria closely.

Rebel fighters of Al-Sultan Murad brigade rest amid sandbags near Aleppo's international airport in May (photo credit: REUTERS)
Rebel fighters of Al-Sultan Murad brigade rest amid sandbags near Aleppo's international airport in May
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Recently, international media sources covered the sensational news that Turkey and Saudi Arabia had agreed to be more active in the Syrian conflict and to topple the Assad dictatorship.
Setting aside the endless political debates, we will try to put this news into the proper context by viewing it through a cool-headed military lens.
In order to play a decisive role in Syria, first of all Turkey and Saudi Arabia must promote an opposition pivot that would be united and well-coordinated.
Such a pivot should adopt a hybrid warfare strategy that would effectively combine regular and irregular tactics and concepts against the regime forces. Some sources draw attention to Jaysh al Fateh being the Turkish-Saudi axis’ hope in Syria. Notably, Jaysh al Fateh’s recent Idlib campaign was promising in terms of hybrid warfare conduct. The leaked videos from the Idlib operations suggest that the opposition units asymmetrically used TOW-guided anti-tank missiles and RPG-22 anti-tank rocket launchers to eliminate the regime’s deployed armor, while simultaneously conducting maneuvers using captured T-55, T-62 and T-72 main battle tanks.
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The second military necessity would be degrading the regime’s air superiority to a considerable extent.
It would be unrealistic to expect the opposition to confront the regime’s fixed-wing assets in mid and high altitudes at longer ranges. Nevertheless, as the Syrian Air Force lacks precision-guided munitions, denying lower-altitude close air support operations by rotary-wing assets, especially barrel-bomb salvos, should be the first air defense priority for the opposition. In doing so, they would be in need of advanced man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS).
The West, particularly Washington, has been showing reluctance in supplying MANPADS to the opposition, due to the fears that these advanced systems could threaten civil aviation and air bases in wrong hands. However, some experts have suggested that small numbers of MANPADS might be issued to “carefully vetted personnel” under the Trainand- Equip Program. Thus, some “carefully vetted” moderate air defense teams could be attached to the Ankara-Riyadh-backed opposition units with a special focus on air defense missions.
Furthermore, any opposition breakthrough should aim to stretch the Ba’athist forces over a wide geographical scope, exploiting Assad’s shortfalls in reliable manpower.
Geopolitically, capturing Aleppo could serve as the opposition campaign’s turning point. Theoretically, a Turkish-Saudi joint military effort could only take place to consolidate a safe zone around Aleppo in a way that would capitalize on meaningful opposition progress toward the province and its surroundings. But it must still be limited in terms of geographical scope and committed forces. In other words, apart from special operations and tactical necessities, both nations should follow a “no boots on the ground” approach. Besides, their political goal must be crystal clear, as neither Turkey nor Saudi Arabia would benefit from jumping into their own Vietnam in Syria.
One should also question the very risks of the joint Turkish-Saudi intervention. Put simply, any military operation brings about anticipated and unforeseen risks. Even a completely stand-off air mission could end up with a captured-pilot situation, as recently seen in a Jordanian pilot’s tragic execution at the hands of Islamic State. Still, it is possible to categorize some expected risks.
First, although the Syrian Air Defense Force’s static systems (i.e. SA-5) and C4ISR architecture are aging, Assad’s mobile and relatively newer systems (i.e. SA-6, SA-22) could pose a significant threat.
Especially against a “constant relocation” model, suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) could be extremely hard. Moreover, Riyadh already has its hands full with Yemen, and the Saudis cannot run a two-front air campaign sustainably.
Second, any ground incursion could face complex resistance from the regime’s forces. It should be underlined that the regime has been a notorious expert in low-intensity conflicts in the region, and enjoys several proxies that could bleed any foreign deployments on Syrian soil.
Third, Turkey and Saudi Arabia might have to deploy liaison officers and forward air controllers attached to the opposition forces to ensure effective coordination. This move would definitely increase the risk of casualties for Ankara and Riyadh.
Last but not least, Turkish and Saudi decision-makers must also prepare for possible retaliation by the Iran-led axis in their homelands.
Despite all the aforementioned drawbacks, standing idle has its risks too. A peaceful transition in the Syrian civil war, or silver-bullet military solutions, simply won’t happen. Therefore, we should follow a sober middle path, refraining from both anxious ostrich syndrome and adventurism. A joint Turkish- Saudi operation could only and best take place as a limited air mission that would capitalize on decisive opposition progress with the strategic aim of establishing a safe zone centered in Aleppo. Apart from this option, any immediate massive land incursion scenario remains premature and speculative.
The author, an assistant professor, is a research fellow at Istanbul-based think tank EDAM and a faculty member at the Girne American University.