Saudi Arabian broadcaster Al-Arabiya reported on Saturday that Thamer al-Sabhan the Saudi minister of state for Persian Gulf affairs, visited the Syrian province of Deir ez-Zur and met with the US envoy to the Western military coalition in Syria William Robak, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Levant Affairs and Special Envoy for Syria Joel Rayburn, and a number of tribal leaders in the region. The key theme of the meeting, the news channel claimed, was offering support to the regions liberated from ISIS, making sure that the terrorist group will not return there, backing militias in northern and eastern Syria, and supporting the local economy by helping education and health sectors to recover.
This is just the face of the Saudi policy. The main drive for Riyadh to broaden its role in Syria’s north is an aim to enter a massive competition with Turkey and deal a blow to Ankara’s vital interests in association with the Americans who are ubiquitously present in the north.
Deir ez-Zor discontent
The division has been widening between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a militant force allied to the US, and the Arab tribes in the Syrian province after the US later last year announced that it intended to withdraw its troops from Syria. On December 20, the heads of 150 tribes in the SDF-controlled areas of the north gathered to decide a roadmap for post-US withdrawal period. They blasted the Kurdish behavior, particularly killing civilians, indiscriminate arrests, and marginalizing the tribes’ role in the administration of the north, and called for an end to the Kurdish domination. They dubbed the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which constitute a large part of the SDF, “occupying forces.” They also formed a council comprised of the Arabs, Turkmens, and anti-YPG/PKK Kurds, announcing that its mission will be negotiating with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to open the door for cooperation with Turkey.
Omar Dadah, the deputy to the council, earlier said that the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the parent party of the PYD, adopted policies that resulted in the forced migration of thousands of Arabs and Turkmens from their places in the north.
“We will fight for territories the YPG seized from us”, he was quoted as saying.
The cleavages between the Arab tribes and YPG in Deir ez-Zor, Hasakah, and Raqqa provinces have played into the hands of Turkey in the north and the central government in the south to take advantage to draw the Arabs into alliances with Damascus and Ankara.
The Kurdish-controlled regions, captured from ISIS over time with help provided by the US, are home to the largest number of oilfields and dams, making them Syria’s lifeline. Also, main trade routes, including the ancient Silk Road, also pass through this areas. This wealth of them motivates Turkey to join its forces with the Arabs to curb the power gain of the Kurds in the northern regions. Ankara leaders, on the one hand, find the oilfields and fertile soil in the northern regions encouraging the Kurds to tighten their grip on the north and fund their secessionist ambitions, augmenting the challenge of clashes with anti-Turkish militant groups like the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group Ankara brands terrorist. On the other hand, Turkey along with its push for the buffer zone on its southern borders with Syria sets its eyes on the Syrian oil which is abundant there.
US- Arab role-playing in Syria a dual-edged sword
The US President Donald Trump reviewed his decision to pull his forces out of Syria following the protests from home senators and regional allies who argued that the exit from the conflict-hit country will clear the Turkish way for threats and attacks on the Syrian Kurds. The US holds interests in alliance with the Kurds. Splitting Syria in favor of the Israeli regime that is keen to see a weakened Syria, continuing Washington’s role and presence in Syria, and also keeping a pressure tool on Turkey are the key American interests the alliance with the Kurds can bring.
By asserting that it will remove its forces from Syria, the White House succeeded in making the Arab allies, who are against the withdrawal, pay for the US troops’ presence in Syria. But Saudi Arabia has a stronger drive to provide support to the Kurds. Riyadh is in competition with Turkey, which supports the Muslim Brotherhood version of Islam which denounces the Saudi policies in the region and extremist version of Islam characterized by Saudi-nurtured Wahhabism. In addition, the Saudis want to retaliate on Ankara for its stingy pursuit of the case of the killing of the prominent Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi who was killed by a hit squad at Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October. Khashoggi was a vocal critic of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his policies in the region.
In fact, the US, using the financial resources of Saudi Arabia and its weight among the Sunni Arabs of Syria, seeks to downscale the tensions among the Kurds and Arabs. Reports emerged a couple of weeks ago that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates provided the PKK with $1 billion. And during his visit, al-Sabhan, according to Al-Akhbar newspaper of Lebanon, has expressed readiness to help the Deir ez-Zor local council in military and services areas. He asked Arabs to enter into dialogue with the Kurds to ditch the strained bilateral ties.
Use of force plays a role here. Rami al-Dous, the chief of the local council, has said that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have initiated what they call “counter-crisis center” to help the YPG. He added that Saudi and Emirati intelligence agents use threats against the tribal leaders to force them into cooperation with the YPG. He also said YPG has created a “tribal workgroup” in association with Washington, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi to build pressure on the Arab tribes.
These developments herald initiation of a rivalry between Turkey and Washington’s regional allies, laying the foundation for further Washington-Ankara tensions.