In a recent phone call with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, thanked him for the kingdom’s support of US-led stabilization efforts in northeast Syria. Saudi Arabia pledged $100 million to rehabilitate infrastructure and to restore services in areas captured by the US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an anti-ISIS alliance led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The significance of the pledge lies in the US’s success in convincing Saudi Arabia to support the SDF, despite the diplomatic implications of such a move. Many countries have been hesitant about support for the SDF, out of concern of offending Turkey – Ankara considers the YPG a terrorist group and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Therefore, it is important to understand the reasons behind the Saudi policy shift, as well as its implications.
The main and crucial reason for the pledge of funds is to forestall the US’s plans to leave Syria, which would further increase Iran’s influence. The US intention to withdraw from SDF-areas in northeast Syria has raised concerns in the region and beyond, for it is expected to embolden the Syrian regime in its bid to regain dominance over areas currently under SDF control. Given the limitations of Damascus’s forces, any regime gains would be through Iran-backed militias. This would increase Iran’s influence in the region, and help it conclusively establish a land bridge stretching from Tehran to Beirut through Iraq and Syria.
Washington’s planned reduction of troops is predicated on costs. “The United States has ended the ridiculous $230 million yearly development payment to Syria. Saudi Arabia and other rich countries in the Middle East will start making payments instead of the US. I want to develop the US, our military and countries that help us!” Donald Trump, the US president, recently tweeted. In this light, Saudi Arabia’s plan to replace US funding is a bid to convince the Trump administration to stay put and to continue to help contain Iran in Syria.
The Saudi pledge likely will encourage other countries, especially in the region, to become more involved in funding stabilization projects. Indeed, the UAE has also pledged $50 million for SDF-controlled areas.
An American diplomat told this writer that while the Saudi and other contributions do not automatically mean that the US will remain in Syria, they help those who believe that it should, including a number within the administration, make a stronger argument for the case.
Additionally, the Saudi contribution could help it restore some of its influence in Syria, which has ebbed recently. To be sure, the kingdom has from the start played a crucial role in supporting the armed rebellion against the Syrian regime. Most of its efforts focused on funding rebel groups, as well as political opposition parties. But Riyadh’s involvement and support began to change as Russia began to intervene, tipping the military balance of power in favor of the Damascus regime.
As a consequence, the territorial loss of its rebel allies and their inability to threaten the regime’s military have, in turn, prompted Saudi Arabia to refocus on supporting the Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee’s attempt to seek a diplomatic solution to the war. Now, however, the kingdom’s new funding can help it re-establish better relations with the SDF, which controls 30 percent of the country.
More immediately, the effects of Saudi Arabia’s policy shift could improve its ties with Turkey. That, of course, seems contradictory. But the matter is complex.
To start, Riyadh’s policy toward Syria previously had been intertwined with that of Ankara. But ties were severely frayed after the kingdom’s rift with Qatar broke out last year, as Ankara sided with Doha. A consequence of this was that the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Kurdish forces, which traditionally opposed Riyadh’s influence in northern Syria, started to improve. Saudi media began to interview senior Syrian Kurdish officials, who praised the role of Riyadh in promoting stability in Syria while criticizing Iran, Turkey and Qatar. So for the past year, Ankara has viewed Saudi support of the Kurds as working against Turkish interest. To be sure, Riyadh’s new funding for SDF-controlled areas threatens to bring its relations with Turkey to deeper lows. Indeed, Turkey-aligned rebel groups already have begun to publicly criticize the funding to the SDF, their declared enemy.
Yet, the newly pledged funds also have the ability to change perception. The fact that Saudi Arabia will be working with the Americans on the disbursement of the new money will go some distance in assuaging Turkish worries. And if Riyadh were to enter into discussions with Ankara to address Turkey’s security concerns and agree with it on where and how the money will be spent, it could prove to be a confidence-building measure that will help restore ties between the two.
But, of course, the key to all this is if the Americans can be persuaded to stay, and the main reason for that is to keep the Iranians out. All else is subsidiary. Stay tuned.
Haid Haid is a research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. He is also a consulting research fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program.
AFP PHOTO/Delil Souleiman