Saudi Plans for Syria Ground Invasion: Bluff or a Disaster in the Making?
Vijay Prashad and Paul Jay discuss the potential consequences of a Saudi-Turkish invasion of Syria, more likely aimed at Assad than ISIS and on a collision course with Russia (1/2)
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
The slaughter of the Syrian people, the greatest refugee crisis on the planet, known in the mass media as the conflict in Syria, and a great geopolitical game to be analyzed and discussed, continues. On Friday, on the 19th of February, a cessation of hostilities is supposed to take place. Not many people think it’s going to change very much on the ground. The talks in Geneva continue on the 25th of February. Again, not much expectations of those talks. The big news, of course, is that the Saudis, Saudi Arabia, are talking about a direct invasion, maybe as much as 150,000 troops. Is that for real? I don’t know. If it is for real, it’s one of the more dangerous moments in modern history. Some people talking about pre-World War I kind of conflict.
We’re going to talk about all of this with our guest Vijay Prashad, who now joins us. Vijay, of course, is a regular on the Real News Network. Thanks for joining us, Vijay.
VIJAY PRASHAD: Pleasure, thanks.
JAY: So, first of all, let’s start with the Saudis. They’re talking about 150,000 troops, potentially. The Turks have been talking about also participating. They’ve been talking about the possibility of lending bases to the Saudis. There was a report this morning with the Turks saying maybe they won’t do this. The Saudis seem to be serious about talking about it. First of all, what do you make about how real all of this is?
PRASHAD: Well, just to give some background, last summer it appeared as if the proxy armies of the Turks and the Saudis were doing quite well. They have taken important roads that link the cities along the Western edge of Syria, and the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad had twice given speeches, once in May, once in June, saying that the morale in the Syrian army was in a very bad way.
At that time, a backchannel negotiation had opened between the Iranians, the Russians, and the Syrians, where there was a serious worry that the government was going to collapse and that the Turk and Saudi proxies were going to basically triumph in Syria. And it is in this conversation that the Russians decided to intervene.
And you know, of course, as people now know, the Russian intervention was unexpected. No spy agency had foretold the appearance of a vast fleet of planes into Syria, which then began to bomb positions not only of ISIS, which was not really the immediate target, but of the proxies of Turkey and Saudi Arabia. And it’s that bombing raid that gave a great deal of confidence to the Syrian army and its various militia groups to, you know, pursue a very concerted effort against the Turkish and the Saudi proxies. And indeed in recent weeks they have almost secured completely the city of Aleppo. At least, surrounded the city of Aleppo.
This is a big blow to Turkish and Saudi ambitions. And it’s out of that frustration that two different kinds of things happened. One was the so-called diplomatic track, that the Saudis were very frustrated with. And I can understand, from their position, why they were frustrated. They were being asked, essentially, to send their people to Geneva to surrender, because that was the nature of the discussion that would have been held in Geneva. And that’s why the so-called Geneva process ran aground.
At the other side the Saudis, you know, if not diplomatically, have been interested in more military support to their forces on the ground. Unable to provide more military support, they’ve begun to speak about some kind of military intervention. I think it’s important to recognize that Saudi Arabia has been at war in Yemen since March 26 of last year, and has made minimal gains. You know, they requested Pakistani ground troops. The Pakistani parliament voted against that. And therefore they’ve had to rely on mercenaries from Sudan, mercenaries from Colombia, and other places. And a major Saudi presence has been bombing by Saudi and Emirati planes from the UAE.
So they’ve been stretched in Yemen. It’s very hard to imagine where the Saudis will get 150,000 ground troops to come into Syria. So much of this seems the me bluster in order to put pressure on the West to somehow ease up on the diplomatic process which would have led to the surrender of the proxies. So I don’t take seriously their claims that they’re going to send a massive armed force into Syria. I think this was merely to open up some diplomatic space to get a better deal, in other words, for their players on the ground.
JAY: Well, they’re kind of at a, a stalemate, standstill in Yemen, if not even losing. Is this a way to get out of Yemen with saving face, because we need the troops to go to Syria?
PRASHAD: Well, you know, when King Salman took the king, kingdom, you know, he appointed his son, Mohammad bin Salman, as the defense minister. And a lot is riding on this monarchy’s, you know, this line of succession. This particular side of the Saudi family in the success in Yemen. You know, Mohammad bin Salman himself was on television on May 26, March 26 and 27, the day that the attack began in Yemen. He was shown on TV personally, you know, guiding the air strikes and things like that.
So he is personally invested, the monarchy is personally invested in the Yemen war. And it’s, you’re right, it has been a standstill. In fact, their aims have not been met at all. So is this merely smoke and mirrors deflecting attention? I very much doubt it, because I doubt that the Saudis are as delusional as to believe that they will be able to have a armed intervention into Syria, even if they have the assistance of the Turks. The Turks are in their own quagmire right now. They have for the last several months been at war against the Kurds again. So I’m not sure that these two countries, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, both in their various quagmires, one against the Yemenis, one against the Kurds, will be able to muster the kind of military force necessary to counter not only, by the way, not only the Syrian army, but the Russians.
You know, John Kerry was asked in an informal moment by two Syrian aid workers at the Munich summit. They asked him, you know, you’re not doing enough for the humanitarian situation. And Mr. Kerry said quite candidly, what do you expect me to do? Do you want me to go to war against Russia? So it’s not a question of Syrian–the intervention of Saudi Arabia and Turkey to combat the Syrian army. They’re going to have to take on Russia. I don’t think they’re [prepared] to do that.
JAY: That’s kind of the whole, that’s kind of the whole point of what makes this moment so dangerous. If there’s any seriousness behind the Saudi plan, it’s obvious that they are far more interested and always have been in overthrowing Assad than they are in fighting ISIS. So while the cover of the Russians, if you want, was going in to fight ISIS when mostly it was the defense of the Assad regime, and they had some, perhaps reasonable, argument that you need to defend Assad to attack ISIS, there’s some merit to that. But primarily they went to defend the Assad government.
And the Saudis are saying the same thing, we’re going to go to fight ISIS. But in reality they want to overthrow the Assad government, which puts them in direct conflict with the Russians and the Iranians. And this, this is why it seems preposterous. But a lot of people thought the Americans invading Iraq was preposterous, and they did it. And this could be–I mean, I don’t know a more dangerous potential conflict on the planet right now.
PRASHAD: You see, the difference–and you’re quite right. Everything you say is correct. The difference between Iraq in both 1991 and 2003, and Syria in 2016, is that there is a major international superpower that has got skin in the game, as they say in America. In other words, the Russians are there, they are present. In 1991, Saddam Hussein was perplexed, because he was asking his advisors, where are the Russians? Where are the Soviets? Well, they weren’t there in ’91, and they certainly weren’t there in 2003. But the Russians are on the ground now inside Syria, so the situation is far more complicated and difficult than the situation of Iraq 2003.
So even if the Saudis are reckless and going for broke here, I doubt that their close allies and confidants in Washington will greenlight any major escalation inside Syria.
JAY: I mean, if you want to go to pure conspiracy theory, boy, the Russians and the Saudis would benefit in terms of the price of oil. I assume it would go up significantly if this ever happened. But I doubt they’re playing that game, but who knows.
PRASHAD: Well, as you know, I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist person, so I’ll set that aside. I think here there’s something quite specific that one needs to worry about. You know, the other opportunity for bringing the West in in a much more formidable way–and you know, I’m not one of those who believe that the West has not intervened, because after all, the West intervened diplomatically, the West has intervened by supplying arms to the Qataris and Saudis and Turks to provide for their proxies. The West has been, you know, in there already since if not 2011, definitely 2012.
But one of the ways in which the West could have been drawn in, and the Turks did try this, is through the utilization of the NATO charter. You know, Turkey has at several points tried to provoke the Assad government in particular to do something inside Turkey. And if the Assad government had done that then the Turks could have opened the NATO charter and asked for, you know, all NATO allies to assist Turkey in fighting against an aggression.
But I think fortunately for the region the Assad government did not allow a provocation so that Turkey could bring in the NATO charter. And I think that was the most legitimate way in which the Turks and the Saudis could have drawn the West into an open conflict. But fortunately, that has not happened.
JAY: Now, it has to be an imminent threat to Turkey itself on its own soil. The NATO trigger would not be Turkish troops in Syria in conflict with Russians or even the Syrian government. It would have to be an attack on Turkey to trigger NATO, is that right?
PRASHAD: That’s correct. The trigger would be self-defense, where the Turks would then make the argument in Brussels that the only way to prevent this attack is to go further into Syrian territory and to create a buffer zone. You know, that’s essentially what the Turks have been arguing for the last several years. Their own proxy state at the border, they are interested in protecting them. That’s the people who are near the Latakia side of Syria.
And on the other side, of course, the Turks are eager for a buffer state to prevent the creation of a Kurdish kind of [canton], what the Syrian Kurds call Rojava, from being properly created in northern Syria. They are very eager to prevent that. And the eagerness to prevent that led to their shelling over these last ten days of the Syrian-Kurdish advance towards Aleppo.
JAY: Yeah, we should talk about that. The one force that was actually making progress in fighting against ISIS is now being shelled by the Turkish government.
PRASHAD: This has been the perplexity over the last year, that the United States is using Turkish air bases to bomb ISIS, whereas from similar air bases, the Turkish air force is going out there to bomb the only people who have been properly fighting ISIS, and that’s the Syrian-Kurdish PYD and the PKK fighters that came across from Turkey to help them.
So you have this situation where from the same air base, two aircraft are taking off to bomb two sides of a conflict. It has been ridiculous over the last year, and it’s merely intensified in these last ten days, when the Turks have increased their attack with artillery fire. But by the way, the Syrian Kurds have been firing back, as well.
JAY: Very, very complex situation. And I go back to what I said in the beginning. One can analyze this, and it’s I guess one of the more intriguing situations. But in the final analysis, this has been a slaughter of the Syrian people, a terrible refugee crisis, and big powers and their proxies keep playing their games.
In the next part of this interview, we’re going to do a part two with Vijay, we’re going to talk about what might a real ceasefire and a real peace agreement look like, if any of the major powers involved in this actually really wanted to settle this thing, and settle it in some way that kept the wellbeing of the Syrian people in mind. So please join us for part two of our interview with Vijay Prashad on the Real News Network.
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