Will Turkey and Saudi Arabia Invade Syria?

Since the New Year there has been a lot of speculation in the mainstream and alternative media about Saudi Arabia and Turkey directly intervening into the war in Syria. Each week there have been threats, demands, and sabre rattling from Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Meanwhile, there is the growing momentum of the Syrian Armed Forces on the killings fields of Syria. To be blunt, the Saudi royal family and Erdogan’s Mafia clan are apoplectic about the series of defeats that their proxy forces are suffering at the hands of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allies.

This sense of dismay and seething anger at the defeats for the so-called ‘moderate rebels’, who represent a Heinz fifty seven variety of Sunni extremism and terrorism, has been the decisive factor leading the US to agree to a ceasefire with the Russians. They no doubt hope that the ceasefire will keep some of their proxy forces still on the battlefield and ready to take up arms against Assad’s forces in the future.

In the lead up to the cessation of hostilities in late February, Saudi Arabia and Turkey made a series of open threats that they would directly intervene. Invading Syria from the north. The Saudis have sent military aircraft to Turkey which has mobilised its armed forces on their side of the border with Syria. We constantly hear about how angry and concerned Erdogan and the Saudi royal family are with the devastating effects of the war upon the civilians of Syria trapped in urban combat zones such as Aleppo. Such crocodile tears should be treated with complete contempt coming as they do from governments that violate humanitarian law with impunity in their own countries.

Turkey’s economic problems

Erdogan is desperate to prop up his position in Turkey as his government is dealing with a growing economic crisis that is lowering living standards in Turkey. The collapse in the value of the Turkish Lira is testament to the weakness of its fragile economy which is dealing with multiple drains upon the state coffers. The resurgent war against Kurdish civilians in South East Turkey together with effects the effects of the Russia sanctions against tourism, agriculture, and textiles estimated to be worth over $12 billion annually have all undermined an increasingly fragile economy. On top of this, Erdogan has to deal with weak economic growth, declining foreign investment, a large current account deficit and rising unemployment. These geopolitical and economic woes have lead to ballooning bad loans for Turkey’s banks. Non-performing loans for Turkey’s banks have increased for 6 consecutive months and rose to 3.18 per cent of total credit in January.

These economic problems are part of the driver for Erdogan’s increasingly reckless and rash foreign policy interventions. He has made increasingly hysterical demands and threats against the Kurdish YPG whose military offensives are gaining ground against both ISIS, Al Nusra, and the motley crew of sectarian nasties that comprise the Free Syrian Army. Over the last year the YPG has captured 90% of the Syrian-Turkish border from ISIS and is poised to close in on the caliphate’s capital in ar-Raqqa together with the SAA over the next period.

Saudi Arabia’s fear of the Shia Crescent

Erdogan’s partner in crime is the Saudi monarchy which is beset by its own economic problems and increasing unrest amongst its Shia population, never mind the existential threat that it sees from the the development of the so-called ‘Shia crescent‘ of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and the Houthis in Yemen. The US-brokered nuclear deal with Iran, which freed up over $100 billion for the Shia theocracy to pursue military deals with Russia, has greatly alarmed the brutal Saudi dictatorship. Iran’s $1 billion purchase of the S300 air defence system is just for starters, and Tehran is expected to sign deals worth a further $8 billion with Russia this year. To cap it all, Iran’s increasingly successful support for the SAA, which has kicked the Saudi-backed FSA from Latakia province and been pushed back in Aleppo province, has the been the icing on the cake for the Saudi monarchy.

The Turkey-Saudi axis has been making belligerent demands to the US that it cease support for the Kurds in Northern Syria. The deployment of Saudi war planes and troops to Turkey is being portrayed as part of the preparation for an invasion of Northern Syria whose aim would be two-fold.

First, to stem the advances of the YPG towards closing the Jarablus corridor that would give its control of the Syrian side of the border with Turkey. This is seen as grave threat by Erdogan, as he fears it would encourage the Kurds of Turkey who are suffering under the Turkish army’s offensive in the south east of the country.

Second, is to prop up the retreating ranks of the FSA, al-Nusra, and the myriad of other jihadi groups who are reeling under the offensives of the SAA and its Russian allies in Northern and central Syria.

So how realistic is the prospect of a Saudi-Turkish invasion of Syria?

On the one hand Turkey and Saudi Arabia are not willing to see their proxy forces on the ground suffer ignominious defeat as it would represent a major military and political embarrassment for them considering the huge amount of political and military capital that has gone into supporting and arming the jihadi insurgency.

The Erdogan Mafia clan has economic reasons for trying to keep the terrorists in business considering the profits they have made from the well documented economic ties between them and ISIS. These include the illegal oil trade between the Erdogan clan and ISIS which Russian air strikes have a made large dent into and the theft of Syrian industry by Turkey from cities such as Aleppo.

Saudi Arabia also fears that a defeat for its proxy forces would greatly strengthen its number one enemy Iran and increase the influence of the so-called Shia crescent in the Middle East.

We should not forget the initial reason for Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey’s intervention into Syria in 2011. This was Assad’s rejection of a gas pipeline from Qatar through Saudia Arabia and on into Syria ending up in Turkey. Its objective was to undermine Russian dominance of the European energy market. This was threatened of course by the Iranian plan for an Islamic pipeline to Europe which would run from Iran through Iraq and on into Syria.

Besides these economic and geopolitical fears both the Erdogan Mafia clan and the Saudi dictatorship are using the Syrian conflict as a diversion from their pressing domestic problems.

History is replete with examples of dictatorial government s taking their nations into armed conflicts as a means of diverting the attention of the masses from their pressing social and economic problems. The mere threat of an invasion of Syria by Turkey and the Saudis, far from revealing their strength, is a testament to their weakness and insecurity.

Many point to the significant Russian military presence in Syria, with its advanced technology and effectiveness on the battlefield, as decisive factors in holding back any Saudi-Turkish invasion.

There is no doubt that the SAA is protected by a formidable air defence system which includes the S400 and the most advanced Russian hardware such as the T-90 tank and SU-35 war plane which acts as a significant deterrent to the Turks and Saudis.

The American support for the Kurds and Washington’s unwillingness to enter into an open military clash with Russia are also key factors holding back the Saudis and Turks.

There are other factors holding back an invasion of Syria. The Saudis in particular are held back by various economic and military factors from engaging in such a reckless gamble.

Saudi quagmire in Yemen

The Saudi led invasion of Yemen last year has failed in its objectives of restoring the US backed puppet Hadi to power. The Saudi coalition cannot even restore any semblance of control to Aden in Southern Yemen which is racked by fighting between Al-Qaeda and pro-Hadi forces in the centre of the city. Besides this, ISIS forces control several provinces in the east of the country.

To make matters worse, the poorly armed Houthi forces in conjunction with remnants of the Yemeni army, have inflicted a series of defeats upon the Saudi coalition. The fighting has even spilled over the border into the south eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia. The Houthis claim to have taken control of several Saudi border towns in Asir, and Jizan provinces.

The well-armed Saudi forces who have the overwhelming advantage in terms of modern military fire-power are poorly led and trained and appear no match in battle for the well led and highly motivated Houthi forces. To compound matters, the war in Yemen is a financial black hole for the Saudi monarchy. The Saudi government has admitted to spending over $5 billion on its military venture in Yemen while suffering heavy casualties.

The Saudi army is unlikely to want to get bogged down in another quagmire considering the debacle in Yemen. Invading Syria where its army would face a more formidable opponent than in Yemen seems very unlikely.

Saudia Arabia’s pressing economic problems

Against the backdrop of the collapse in oil revenue, which makes up 90% of government income, the Saudi monarchy has started to cut back upon subsidies to its population. Last year Saudi Arabia ran a 98 billion dollar budget deficit. This is forecast to rise to 20% of GDP around $140 billion this year. King Salman is introducing a series of measures that will put the social contract between the monarchy and the population under strain. Taxes are set to be introduced for the first time and cuts in subsidies for water, electricity and gasoline running into the billions. Social spending is the glue that helps keep the medieval Wahhabi regime in power.

Cutting subsidies is a dangerous game for the Saudi monarchy, which raised them after the Arab Spring, as Professor Toby Craig Jones has pointed out the expensive social welfare programmes, “are the very social contract that informally binds ruler and ruled in Saudi Arabia.” Robert Jordan, former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia has commented that once the monarchy starts to attack the living standards of the population you are, “likely to see an increase in political unrest.”

The other potential time bomb under the Saudi monarchy is the peg between its currency the riyal and U.S. dollar. This has been one of the strongest currency pegs in the international monetary system. Over the last year this has come under increasing pressure as the Saudi monarchy has burned through its currency reserves to maintain the current rate of 3.75 to one. In 2014 Saudi dollar reserves peaked at $737 billion these are down to $609 billion by early 2016. It is spending billions a month to maintain this peg. This is leading to capital flowing out of the kingdom as fears grow over a possible devaluation of the Riyal.

Last year the world economy experienced two currency shocks that wiped billions off global stock markets. The Swiss franc ended its peg to the Euro and the Chinese Yuan was devalued against the dollar. Increasing numbers of hedge fund hyenas are circling like vultures sensing that the Saudi currency is wounded prey ready to break the peg with the dollar. Financial analyst Jim Rickards has noted this would send a “financial earthquake” through the world financial system

The Saudi monarchy can sit and wait while its currency reserves dwindle away to nothing supporting the dollar peg. However, if low oil prices continue for a prolonged period then its hand maybe forced. It needs dollars to buy weapons for its bloated military in the face of the growing influence of Iran and maintain some of the social welfare programmes that have helped insulate it from popular discontent.

Having said this, the Saudi monarchy is all too aware of the potentially dangerous impact of a devaluation from a population increasingly unhappy with rising prices for food and other staple goods.

The Saudi monarchy are acutely aware that the driving force behind the Arab Spring were the political and economic grievances of young people. In a country where people under 30 comprise over sixty per cent of the population the House of Saud fears the spectre of young people on the streets more than anything else.

These social and economic factors seriously undercut the Saudi sabre rattling over a ground invasion of Syria. Looked at from this perspective, a Saudi-Turkish invasion of Syria seems remote.

Yet an act of desperation by these dictatorial regimes, in a vain attempt to shore up their rule, cannot not be ruled out.

Leon Tressell is a UK based historian with a research focus upon geo-politics and economics. Read other articles by Leon.