Mr. Phillips is senior lecturer in the International Relations of the Middle East at Queen Mary University of London and associate fellow at Chatham House's Middle East and North Africa Program.
Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been the leading Middle Eastern states seeking the overthrow of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Having set regime change as their goal in 2011, each state devoted considerable resources to achieving it, including diplomatic and economic sanctions, support for elements of the political and armed opposition, and pressure on the United States to intervene against Assad. However, after six years of conflict, Assad remains in power despite having lost considerable territory, and these three states are all, in varying ways, in a worse position as a result of their Syria policies.
Explaining these failures first requires an understanding of the changing context in which they operated, particularly the debates surrounding U.S. power. The Syrian civil war occurred amid profound changes in the Middle East regional system. The uprising in Syria in 2011 arrived as a perceived "Pax Americana" over the Middle East after the Cold War was coming undone. The failures of the 2003-11 occupation of Iraq, the decreasing importance of Gulf oil, the economic and military retrenchment following the 2008 financial crisis, and the election of Barack Obama, a critic of his predecessor's military adventures, all prompted reluctance in Washington to continue an active hegemony.
Some see structural causes for these changes: part of a wider global decline in U.S. power. The unipolar post-Cold War international order dominated by the United States was becoming "multipolar," with China, Russia and possibly the EU, India and Brazil challenging U.S. hegemony.1 In the Middle East, what Fawaz Gerges calls "America's moment" was over, and multiple regional powers moved to fill the vacuum.2 The weakening of states like Iraq and the growth of transnational actors such as Hezbollah, the PKK and al-Qaeda were other features of this new multipolar order.3 Another group of scholars agree that change has occurred, but argue that American hegemony gave way to a bipolar system based on two blocs led by Saudi Arabia and Iran.4 Sectarian differences between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran are a factor in what Gregory Gause calls a "New Middle East Cold War."
This interpretation of declining U.S. power is challenged by a range of "supremacist" scholars and commentators such as Joseph Nye, Stephen Brooks, G. John Ikenberry and William Wohlforth, who argue that U.S. dominance is far from over. Globally, the United States was weakened by events in the 2000s, but no emerging power even came close to matching U.S. military strength, and international institutions remain those designed and dominated by Washington. They note that many have predicted U.S. decline, as in the 1980s, and been proven wrong.5 These arguments downplay the structural changes highlighted by the declinists and instead focus on the agency of Barack Obama as president. The United States may have stepped back in the Middle East, but this was a temporary political move rather than a structural shift away from U.S. hegemony. Such commentators and scholars expected a reversion to dominance under a Clinton presidency.6 With a Trump victory, all bets are off.
At the global level, the debate over U.S. decline will likely continue, not least because of its political significance. However, the Syrian civil war helps to illustrate that the United States no longer dominates the Middle East.7 This does not mean that a new regional system has replaced the unipolar order, whether multipolar or bipolar. The region remains in flux. The United States under Obama was the most powerful actor, playing a lead role in regional politics by trying to revive the Israel-Palestine peace process, reaching an international agreement on Iran's nuclear program and seeking ceasefires in Syria. However, it no longer enjoys the perceived hegemony of the 1990s and 2000s, and other actors are vying to increase their influence.
However, the United States has still been perceived by many Middle Eastern actors to be the hegemon, while Washington has understandably not sought to promote the reality that it is less dominant than before. This misperception has affected some states' policies, with allies such as Saudi Arabia repeatedly urging the United States to be more active and growing disillusioned with Washington when it refused. A multipolar Middle East appears the most accurate description of the changes underway, with a Saudi-Iranian cold war a component of it rather than the defining feature.8 The Syrian Civil War was shaped and driven by this regional environment, but this in turn reinforced the trend towards multipolarity and an end to U.S. dominance.9
The U.S. regional allies Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar found themselves in a contradictory position as a result of these regional changes. On the one hand, alongside Iran and Russia, Turkey and Qatar sought to expand their own influence as the United States retreated. Saudi Arabia, similarly, found itself having to be more proactive, primarily to defend against Iran's increased activism. All three saw the Syrian civil war as a key arena for their various regional ambitions. However, Doha, Riyadh and Ankara drew much of their power from their longstanding alliances with the United States, having previously "bandwagoned" with the hegemon.10 Though each pursued ambitious policies and rhetoric in Syria, in different ways each lacked the capacity to achieve these goals without U.S. assistance. They, therefore, found themselves in the contradictory position of pushing an agenda more loudly as the result of U.S. retreat yet simultaneously demanding that Washington play a more active role to help them. They badly misread the Obama administration, damaging their ties to Washington and worsening the situation in Syria.
Many of the failures lie in a combination of these three states' overestimating their own capacity to affect the crisis and misjudging the position of others in the changing regional environment. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey shared three common overestimations of the Syria crisis. Each greatly misjudged its prior understanding of Syria. In late summer 2011, when Ankara, Riyadh and Doha called for Assad's departure, each believed his regime was close to collapse under the weight of popular demonstrations. While Doha and Ankara were more enthusiastic than Riyadh, which was wary of the wider democratic implications of a successful Arab Spring, all three based polices on the assumption that Assad would soon be toppled by a small push. Their actions in the first years of the crisis reflected these assumptions. Even before it had officially called on Assad to stand down, Ankara permitted both the exiled political opposition, the Syrian National Council (SNC), and the nominal head of the embryonic military opposition, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), to base themselves in Turkish territory. Qatar, with Saudi approval, led moves at the Arab League to suspend Syria's membership and initiate economic sanctions in November 2011.
A month later, the two states sponsored an Arab League monitoring plan aimed at de-escalating the crisis. Yet, after less than a month, Riyadh declared the mission a failure due to Assad's unwillingness to cooperate; after pulling back, both the Saudis and Qataris increased their support for the armed opposition. Some have suggested that the Gulf states were never committed to the Arab League initiatives but saw them as necessary stepping stones to legitimatize military action against Assad.11 For all three states, their rush to sponsor military opposition and place little faith in the Arab League's non-military means illustrates their false assumption that the Assad regime was facing inevitable collapse. Alarmingly though, none had any intention of taking military action themselves, and the newly formed militia looked like a poor match for Assad's state military.
Why did these states presume Assad would soon collapse? Interviews with policy makers show that their prewar intelligence on Syria was minimal.12 Saudi leaders, for example, depended upon a limited set of personal relationships with a few Syrians. Abdullah, king until his death in 2015, had a Syrian wife (a sister of the wife of Assad's rebellious uncle, Rifaat), providing a family connection. Similarly, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, head of Saudi intelligence and master of the Syria file from 2012 to 2014, relied on old personal and tribal contacts in Syria and Lebanon. Indeed, when Riyadh later took over leadership of the SNC's successor, the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), it was unsurprising that their preferred leader was a Syrian from the Shammar tribe, which has a large and influential presence in Saudi Arabia.
Qatar and Turkey relied on personal ties with Syria's outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, while Turkey also utilized newly forged economic links with a set of Syrian traders, mostly based in Aleppo. Yet these provided only a limited picture of Syria. None had access to the kind of wide-ranging intelligence on Syria necessary to make well-informed policies. Neither Qatar nor Saudi Arabia had strong intelligence or foreign-policy institutions, and those they had, for historical reasons, were not focussed on Syria. Likewise, Turkey's intelligence institutions were more focused on the Kurdish region than Damascus, while its foreign ministry, having looked west for decades, had barely six Arabic speakers among its diplomats in 2011.13
They also overestimated their ability to unite the political opposition. Not only did all three lack knowledge, they also projected onto the opposition their own political preferences for who should rule post-Assad Syria. Qatar and Turkey disproportionately favored the Muslim Brotherhood, while Saudi Arabia actively backed anyone but them. Western diplomats complained that both Doha and Riyadh ignored their pleas to include better representatives of Syria's internal opposition — the Local Coordination Committees (Tansiqiat) on the ground in Syria — when the SOC was formed in late 2012.14 Moreover, rivalry between elements of the opposition backed by Saudi Arabia and those backed by Qatar led to serious fissures within the coalition in 2013, leading first to the swift resignation of its first president and potential unifying figure, Moaz al-Khatib, and then to the effective capture of the council by pro-Saudi forces. Both Riyadh and Doha prioritized their own short-term interests over any chance of forming a united and effective political opposition, contributing to the failure of this body to form a realistic alternative to Assad that might have attracted undecided civilians and fighters.
Turkey also repeatedly intervened over the opposition's engagement with the Kurds. There was already distrust between the mostly Arab opposition and Syria's largely secular Kurds, who, despite being historically persecuted by the Assad regime, feared the presence of former Arab nationalists and Islamists within the opposition. Yet Turkey widened this gap by using its influence with the SNC, SOC and, after them, the Higher Negotiations Committee (HNC), formed in 2015 to negotiate at the third round of Geneva peace talks, to ensure that the PYD were excluded. Turkey and the oppositionists insisted this was due to the PYD's reported collaboration with Assad, but more important was its affiliation with the Turkish Kurdish separatists, the PKK, Ankara's longstanding enemy. The PYD eventually became the most powerful Kurdish Syrian political and military actor, and its distance from the opposition contributed to the anti-Assad movement's weakness.
Finally, a similar story was involved in backing opposition fighters. None of the three states had much experience with proxy forces. Saudi Arabia had paid for mujahedeen in the Afghanistan war of the 1980s, but the logistics were run by the CIA and Pakistan; Qatar had recently supplied weapons to Libyan rebels, with undetermined results. Even so, all three actively encouraged an armed insurgency with political, economic and military support. Saudi Arabia relied upon personal ties once again, funneling support through tribal leaders in the Houran in Syria's south and its Lebanese contact, Okab Sakr. Turkey looked to Muslim Brotherhood affiliates at first, before its intelligence arm, MIT, started to work more closely with groups once they had formed, such as Liwa al-Tawheed and later Ahrar as-Sham. Qatar, meanwhile, backed multiple groups in a scattergun approach. This proved controversial; many alleged they directly or indirectly supported Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's Syrian wing.15
In addition to this, all three turned a blind eye or even actively encouraged the flow of private funds and fighters to Syrian militias until at least 2013. Ankara operated an open-border policy that saw foreign fighters flood to Syria via Turkey, with its border towns of Hatay, Gaziantep and Sanliurfa providing R&R and staging points, often with little objection from the authorities. Similarly, Saudi Arabia and Qatar initially encouraged or at least permitted religious charities and private organizations to raise money explicitly for the armed struggle in Syria.16 Though Riyadh and Doha eventually clamped down on this, first by closing operations at home and then pressuring neighboring Kuwait to tighten its anti-terror finance laws in 2013 in order to end its role as a clearing house for such funds, huge amounts had already found their way to Syria. These policies all helped make the armed opposition a fluid, but disunited, collection of competing fighting groups, many of a radical nature, rather than a single effective force. While later efforts were made by Riyadh and Ankara to improve command and control links with these groups, as with the political opposition, the damage was already done. The incompetence of these external actors contributed to the disunity of the fighting opposition, minimizing the chances of their success and therefore achieving the aim of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey: regime change.
In terms of misjudging the changing regional environment, two commonalties among the three states stand out. First, they grossly underestimated the lengths Assad's allies would go to preserve Assad's rule. The same structural conditions — the weakening of the Syrian state and the retreat of the United States —— that allowed Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to play a more pronounced role in the conflict were also utilized by Iran, Hezbollah and Russia to support Assad. Iran had both historical and strategic reasons for supporting Damascus: they had been close allies since Iran's 1979 revolution, and Syria provided strategic depth for Iran's Lebanese ally Hezbollah, offering a vital supply line for weapons in Tehran's proxy confrontation with Israel. Moreover, after making major regional gains after the 2003 Iraq War — the U.S. destruction of Saddam Hussein's regime unintentionally transforming Baghdad from an enemy into a close Iranian ally — Syria offered a key layer of protection to Tehran's new asset. There were signs that Iran did not approve of Assad's bloody overreaction to protest, with Tehran's initially advising a more cautious approach and sending out feelers to the opposition. However, Washington's declaration in late summer 2011 that Assad must go convinced any doubters in Iran that the threat to its regional ambitions in the post-American Middle East was potentially existential. Thereafter Iran, primarily via the leadership of the Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force, incrementally sent more and more support to Assad. Advisers from the Quds Force were dispatched immediately. Thereafter, 4,000-5,000 Hezbollah fighters and advisers, 3,000-4,000 Shia militia from Iraq and Afghanistan, and finally up to 2,000 Quds troops were all dispatched to help reorganize Assad's forces and/or fight in what would prove to be key battles against the rebels.17 In addition, generous credit lines were granted to Assad to finance the war and purchase food and other supplies, including a $4.6 billion loan in 2013, while Iranian companies were granted favorable terms to operate in Syria.18
Russia also had historical ties to Syria, being an old Cold War ally, but strategic issues were paramount. Syria was home to Russia's only naval base in the Mediterranean, although it was of greater symbolic than military importance. Moscow, like Tehran, feared that defeat for Assad would mean victory for the United States and its regional allies and saw any success for Washington as a threat. Moreover, as radicals increased their presence among the opposition, President Vladimir Putin feared that success for ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria could boost Russian jihadists. Consequently, Russia also incrementally increased its aid, initially financial and diplomatic — including six vetoes of measures condemning Assad at the UN Security Council — and then sent its air force and up to 2,000 military personnel in a dramatic intervention in September 2015. Yet, in both cases, Assad's two most important allies sent far more, whether money, troops, weapons or personnel, than Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey or their U.S. allies were willing to match.
Second, and most important, they mistook Barack Obama's intentions. Interviews with members of the SNC and SOC and former fighters on the ground illustrate that from at least early 2012, Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia were informing members of the opposition that eventually the United States would intervene against Assad. Obama's intervention in Libya in spring 2011, backed by Saudi Arabia and enthusiastically urged by Qatar, convinced many, both for and against Assad, that the United States was back in the business of regime change in the Middle East. Robert Ford, then the U.S. ambassador to Damascus, recalled that despite his insistence on White House caution, leading oppositionists told him, "You're wrong Robert, the Americans will come."19 While some fighters and oppositionists were not convinced, Bassma Kodmani, spokesperson for the SNC between July 2011 and August 2012, noted,
The regional powers were absolutely confident that intervention would happen. Again, Libya had happened, they had participated in the Libya campaign, and they were confident that they were going to participate in a campaign in Syria as well. … I recall very well, they were always reassuring the opposition, "it is coming, it is coming definitely, the intervention is coming."20
Interviews with Turkish officials similarly reveal that Prime Minister Erdogan was convinced that Obama would intervene against Assad and that he was delaying until after his re-election campaign of November 2012.21 Obama appeared to reinforce these expectations when he declared in August 2012 that any movement or use by Assad of his chemical weapons arsenal would represent a "red line" for the United States.22
Yet the regional powers seriously misread their superpower ally. Obama felt he had been elected with a strong mandate to put an end to major overseas interventions and feared being dragged into an unwinnable quagmire in Syria.23 He had serious reservations about the Libya operation but was reluctantly persuaded by interventionists in his administration and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. The subsequent chaos that engulfed Libya only reinforced his scepticism about intervention, and deterred him from trying something similar in Syria's more populous, multiethnic and logistically difficult terrain. Throughout the Syria conflict, Obama took a hard realist approach, only acting when he felt core U.S. interests were under threat. He therefore launched airstrikes when ISIS captured Mosul in 2014, perceiving their internationalist jihadism and their immediate attacks on U.S. Iraqi Kurdish allies more threatening than Assad's brutal but national agenda. Similarly, his "red line" with Assad really did seem to be about chemical weapons, which he feared would proliferate as a result of chaos in Syria, a particular threat to the close U.S. ally Israel. Therefore, when Putin offered him a deal in August-September 2013 to disarm Assad's chemical arsenal peacefully, avoiding the airstrikes the United States seemed likely to launch once it was determined that Damascus had launched a chemical attack on rebel-held territory, it achieved Obama's goal. Obama later said he was proud of this course of action, standing up to the hawkish U.S. foreign-policy establishment, and the anger this generated among America's disappointed Syrian and regional allies was something the White House seemed willing to live with.24
Obama might be criticized for not communicating sufficiently with his regional allies and sending the wrong signals by adopting a rhetorically aggressive stance with Assad — calling for him to stand down and declaring a red line on chemical weapons — but with little intention of following up with military action. However, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey clearly lacked understanding of the Obama administration. This points again to a lack of capacity. One Saudi official noted that its Foreign Service bureaucracy was, by nature, extremely slow to adapt, and many, such as Prince Bandar, failed to realize that the Obama administration viewed the Middle East through a very different lens than its more hawkish predecessor. Indeed, Riyadh expected to be in an elevated place in Washington's thinking yet were often an afterthought to Obama; they discovered Obama was calling off the strike on Assad in 2013 via CNN.25 Despite this lack of understanding of the president and his regional policy, however, all three still based their Syria policy on the assumption that eventually the U.S. cavalry would arrive. This proved a disastrous misjudgement that exacerbated the civil war further and placed serious strain on U.S. relations with all three powers.
LOSING OUT IN THE WAR
Given the misery heaped on the Syrian people, it is difficult to speak of "winners" and "losers" among the external powers intervening in the civil war. Even so, after six years, it is clear that Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia all failed in their goal of toppling Assad, often at considerable cost. It is a toss-up between Qatar and Turkey over who has had a worse war. Qatar turned on its former ally Assad in 2011 as part of its Arab Spring policy: backing popular revolutions (except in the Gulf) and hoping that friendly Muslim Brotherhood-aligned governments would come to power and boost its regional influence.
These regional ambitions are now in tatters. Much of this is due to events beyond Syria, notably the toppling of its Muslim Brotherhood allies in Egypt in 2013 and the failure of its preferred faction in post-Qadhafi Libya. However, its mis-steps in Syria have played a role. Losing control of the opposition to Saudi Arabia in 2013 was a major blow to its ambitions. A public-relations campaign the next year financed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that alleged continued Qatari support for Jabhat al-Nusra did further damage to Doha's international reputation, prompting further retreat.26 From then on, Qatar has been relegated to junior-partner status behind Saudi Arabia and Turkey. That said, its core interests remained unaffected. Its alliance with the United States and the all-important Al-Udeid U.S. airbase that effectively guarantees Qatari security, easily survived disagreement over Syria policy. Moreover, as a small state a long way from the fighting, there was little threatening to spill over from Syria, either in terms of refugees or a radicalized population.
This was not the case for Turkey, which not only saw its regional ambitions scotched by Syria, but also found its domestic situation badly damaged by the morass to the south. Turkey was initially reluctant to join the U.S. campaign against ISIS, prompting accusations that it had previously sponsored the jihadists as an anti-Assad force and cut a deal with the self-declared caliphate over Turks captured in Mosul. However, Turkey soon shifted its stance after suffering repeated internal terrorist attacks, some led by its own radicalized citizens, including the worst bombing in Turkish history in Ankara in October 2015 that killed 103. Its economy was likewise damaged by the war, partly affected by the nearly three million Syrian refugees it has taken in, but more by the decline in tourism after repeated bombings and sanctions from Moscow over a Russian jet shot down by Turkish forces in December 2015. Thus far, Turkey's key alliance with NATO has survived, despite some wobbles over the Syria crisis, not least the U.S. alliance with the hated PYD and its affiliated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as an effective anti-ISIS force.
Turkey's Kurdish situation has considerably worsened as a result of the Syrian war. Ankara's relations with the PYD's self-declared autonomous Rojava region in northern Syria helped re-open Turkey's longstanding conflict with the PKK. Ankara's reluctance to help PYD fighters defending the Syrian border city of Kobani from an ISIS onslaught in 2014-15 prompted outrage from Turkish Kurds and contributed to the reactivation of the PKK insurgency. Alongside ISIS bombs, Turkey now faces regular terrorist outrages from Kurdish radicals, including twin attacks on civilians in Ankara in 2016 killing 28 in February and 37 in March. The government, meanwhile, has launched multiple violent assaults in the Kurdish-dominated east. However, unlike in the past, because of the Syrian civil war, the PKK now enjoys what is effectively a proxy state in Rojava along Turkey's border, a situation Ankara had been anxious to avoid.
Of the three, Saudi Arabia has been closest to achieving its goals in Syria. Riyadh's highest regional priority was containing its regional nemesis Iran, and this has been partially achieved. Assad has not been toppled, but Tehran has been bogged down financially and militarily by propping up Damascus. While before the war, Iran looked set to benefit from the Arab Spring, styling itself as the leading Muslim-revisionist anti-Western voice in the region, the sectarian aspects of the conflict — repeatedly pointed to by Riyadh, its allied clerics and media outlets — have reduced Tehran's appeal or "soft power" to a narrower, mostly Shia, audience. At the same time, the Syrian war has helped usher in a more activist Riyadh, particularly since Salman's coming to the throne in 2015 and the related ascendency of his ambitious son, Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS). However, the new military activism of MBS, especially in Yemen, is proving more challenging than initially hoped.
It is also increasingly expensive at a time of low oil prices, which have already prompted an ambitious program of economic reforms that may yet lead to social and political difficulties. Moreover, the rise of ISIS threatens a return to the kind of domestic terrorism seen in the early 2000s. In 2015, ISIS-inspired militants launched multiple terror attacks targeting Saudi Shia, including nine murdered in a mosque in the Eastern Province, while militants of Saudi origin unsuccessfully attacked the border from Iraq in January. Despite this, Saudi Arabia has been able to position itself as a spoiler in Syria with sufficient leverage over the opposition to block any resolution if it chose to, and (unlike Turkey) it is not hurting sufficiently from its role in the war to incentivize a shift.
What signs are there that these regional powers have learned from the Syrian experience? This is difficult to gauge, especially on issues such as improved intelligence, but a few indicators are evident. Qatar's modesty in regional affairs since 2014 suggests it has rethought the adventurism that saw it wade into Syria. Tamim, the emir since 2013, appears to be focusing his energies internally at present. After Qatar's hard-fought "branding" was damaged by its alleged association with jihadists, alongside reports of slave-like labor conditions for infrastructure projects, Doha looks set for a period in the relative shadows. This seems likely to last while Tamim consolidates his power and preparations for the 2022 World Cup are underway. Despite all its failures, one positive outcome from the Syria conflict for Doha has been a tightening of the already close alliance with Turkey. This was seen in 2015, when it was announced that Turkey would open its first post-Ottoman Middle East military base in Qatar. While the estimated 3,000 Turkish troops will be dwarfed by the far larger U.S. base, it illustrates that Doha is attracting partners other than Washington alone, a hint at Qatar's recognition, or perhaps fear, of a U.S. retreat and an acceptance of the embryonic multipolar Middle East.27 Similarly, having a defensive ally not shared by Riyadh or Abu Dhabi guards against any possible hostility from Saudi Arabia or the UAE. In Syria itself, Qatar remains involved with the opposition, but this is primarily financial and in line with Turkey and, to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia. Qatar's future role is likely to be even more personal, utilizing its contacts to broker local ceasefires and prisoner exchanges. Should the war end, however, Qatar is likely to assume a leading role once more, given its likely financial clout in any rebuilding projects.
Turkey has also adopted a more conciliatory regional line after years of failure in Syria. In May 2016, Ahmet Davutoglu, foreign minister at the beginning of the crisis and prime minister from 2014, was abruptly dismissed. While much foreign policy, especially on Syria, was as much driven by Erdogan as Davutoglu, the president and his supporters seemed happy to scapegoat the departing premier and used his dismissal as an opportunity to change tack. A reconciliation with Russia was sought the following June, prompting Putin to lift damaging sanctions on Turkey's tourism sector. There was also a softening of ties with Iran, another relationship soured by the Syria crisis, with the Turkish and Iranian foreign ministers visiting each other's capitals that August.
This partial détente with Moscow and Tehran facilitated the most dramatic shift in Ankara's Syria policy in years: an invasion of Syria's northern borderlands in support of rebel fighters against ISIS. This move represented how far Turkey's policy had shifted. Assad was not the target but rather ISIS positions, with an eye to depriving the ascendant PYD/SDF from capturing any more territory as the self-declared caliphate retreated. While Turkey maintained its opposition to Assad, it now had greater priorities in containing the twin threat on its border of ISIS and the PYD that was spilling over at home. As Soner Cagaptay noted, Ankara compartmentalized the conflict, allowing itself to improve relations with Russia and Iran to move into northern Syria, while continuing its support for rebels fighting Assad.28 Soon afterwards, presumably as part of its agreement with Russia, Turkey quietly diminished its support for rebels in Aleppo (though not elsewhere), allowing Assad and his allies to retake the eastern half of the city in December 2016. The next month, Turkey co-sponsored with Russia and Iran a ceasefire and Syrian peace talks in the Kazakh capital, Astana.
The softening of Turkey's position might indicate that it had learned some lessons from its failed Syria policies, but the shift was also a result of foreign and domestic necessity. Turkey was increasingly isolated following its foreign-policy blunders. The detente with Russia and Iran came alongside a wider post-Davutoglu regional reconciliation with Israel and Egypt. Domestically, Erdogan's own power and his plans to amend the Turkish constitution to strengthen the presidency looked under threat by the continued failures against ISIS and the PKK/PYD.29 Indeed, perceived failure against the Kurds seems to have partly motivated a failed army coup against him by parts of the Turkish military in July 2016. As one veteran Turkish commentator noted, "To Erdogan foreign policy is primarily there to serve domestic policy."30 Repairing regional ties allowed him to move against the PYD and ISIS in Syria to boost his internal position. Yet it also showed the shifting regional perspective of Turkey as a result of the Syrian war. While the United States was consulted before the northern Syria invasion, the key broker of the deal was Russia, and the United States was then not invited to the Astana talks — more evidence of the new multipolar regional climate.
Saudi Arabia, in contrast, seems to have learned the fewest lessons from the Syria debacle. This is not unrelated to the fact that, of the three, it has been closest to achieving its goal of checking Iran's expansion. In addition, due to distance, it has been the least damaged by the diplomatic and military spillover of the war. If anything, Riyadh might be accused of repeating its Syria mistakes in its war in Yemen. Bruce Riedel, for example, argues, "The Saudi decision to go to war 18 months ago was rushed and poorly thought through, with little concrete planning for how to achieve a decisive victory."31 A lack of capacity to match lofty ambitions is being seen once again. Other impulsive regional moves in 2016, such as the drawdown of support for its allies in Lebanon, further point to the lack of a new approach to foreign intelligence and a wider strategy beyond a determination to battle Iran on multiple fronts.
On the one hand, there have been signs that Riyadh eventually learned the approach of the Obama White House, pursuing its own policies, often in defiance of Washington. Suggestions of a NATO-like Islamic military alliance led by Riyadh point to a recognition of a post-American future, although few think this organization will ever actually appear. Yet, despite the rhetoric, Saudi Arabia remains dependent on U.S. supplies and support for its operations in Yemen. Policy makers in Riyadh insist the government's primary strategy is to renew the U.S. alliance under a new president — with a wooing of Trump underway, despite his early controversies.32 In this, Riyadh remains wedded to the supremacists in Washington, convinced that a change of occupant in the oval office is more important than the structural changes seen over the past decade.
Donald Trump will not be able to turn the clock back to 2008, even if he so wished. While Barack Obama may have been particularly cautious in the Middle East, his successor will likely face the same structural obstacles to further intervention as he did. The U.S. public is increasingly averse to large-scale deployments, while military chiefs, after a decade of failure in Iraq and Afghanistan, are more aware of the political limitations of the use of force. Regionally, the Syrian civil war has helped to make the Middle East more multipolar, and Russian ambitions, in particular, will not simply disappear with a new incumbent in the White House — indeed, early signs are that Trump may accelerate, not halt, this trend. As the United States retrenched after 2008, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey found themselves in the contradictory position of simultaneously having more opportunities to promote their agendas while still being structurally dependent on the United States to achieve their goals. They seriously misread Washington in Syria, alongside other actors, and overestimated their own capacities. The resultant failure contributed to a long and brutal civil war. While some lessons have clearly been learned from this, including reluctant acceptance that a multipolar Middle East may be here to stay, all three show signs that they have not been hurt enough from the Syrian war to avoid making the same mistakes again.
1 Christopher Layne, "This Time It's Real: The End of Unipolarity and the Pax Americana," International Studies Quarterly 56 (2012): 203-13
2 Fawaz Gerges, Obama and the Middle East: The End of America's Moment? (Palgrave, 2012); Roland Dannreuther, "Russia and the Arab Spring: Supporting the Counter-Revolution," Journal of European Integration 37, no. 1 (2015): 77-94; and Daniela Huber, "A Pragmatic Actor — the U.S. Response to the Arab Uprisings," Journal of European Integration 37, no. 1 (2015): 57-75.
3 David Held and Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, "The Arab Spring and the Changing Balance of Global Power," Open Democracy, February 2, 2014, https://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/david-held-kristian-coates….
4 F. Gregory Gause, "Beyond Sectarianism: The New Middle East Cold War," The Brookings Doha Center (2014); Lenore G. Martin, "Turkey and the USA in a Bipolarizing Middle East," Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies 15, no. 2 (2013): 175-88; Vali Nasr, The Dispensable Nation (Scribe, 2013); and Curtis Ryan, "The New Arab Cold War and the Struggle for Syria." Middle East Report 262 (2012): 28-31.
5 Joseph S. Nye "The Twenty‐First Century Will Not Be a "Post‐American" World," International Studies Quarterly 56, no. 1 (2012): 215-17; and Stephen Brooks, G. John Ikenberry, and William Wohlforth, "Don't Come Home, America: The Case against Retrenchment," International Security 37, no. 3 (Winter 2012-13): 7-51.
6 Robert Lieber, "Rhetoric or Reality? American Grand Strategy and the Contemporary Middle East," prepared for delivery at the 2014 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, DC, August 28-31, 2014; and Kenneth Pollack's remarks in "Symposium: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Future of the Middle East," Middle East Policy 21, no. 3 (Fall 2014): 1-30.
7 Stephen Walt, "Lax Americana," Foreign Policy (October 23, 2015), http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/10/23/lax-americana-obama-foreign-policy-…; Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson, "The End of Pax Americana," Foreign Affairs (November/December 2015), https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/2015-10-20/end-pax-…; and Marc Lynch, "Obama and the Middle East," Foreign Affairs (September/October 2015), https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/obama-and-middle-ea….
8 Gideon Rose, "The Post American Middle East," Foreign Affairs (November/December 2015), https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/2015-10-20/post-ame…; and Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World (W.W. Norton & Company, 2008).
9 Christopher Phillips, The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East (Yale, 2016), 5.
10 Stephen M. Walt, The Origins of Alliance (Cornell University Press, 1987), 18.
11 Hassan Hassan, "Syria: The View from the Gulf States," ECFR, June 2013, http://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_syria_the_view_from_the_gulf_stat….
12 Christopher Phillips, The Battle for Syria, 67-82.
13 "Turkey's Power Capacity in the Middle East," USAK Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies Report No. 12-04 (June 2012), 2, http://www.usak.org.tr/dosyalar/rapor/ctZTC1gAenLx7HaF8Gi7oip20CoDVX.pdf.
14 Author interview with Robert Ford, Washington, D.C., June 15, 2015.
15 Glen Greenwald, "How Former Treasury Officials and the UAE Are Manipulating American Journalists," The Intercept, November 25, 2014, https://theintercept.com/2014/09/25/uae-qatar-camstoll-group/.
16 Elizabeth Dickinson, "Follow the Money: How Syrian Salafis Are Funded from the Gulf," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December 23, 2012, http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=54011.
17 Christopher Kozak, "'An Army in All Corners': Assad's Campaign Strategy in Syria," Institute for the Study of War, April 2015, http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/An%20Army%20in%20Al…; and Christopher Kozak, "Regime and Iranian Forces Launch Multi-Pronged Offensive in Aleppo," Institute for the Study of War, October 22, 2015, http://understandingwar.org/map/regime-and-iranian-forces-launch-multi-….
18 Phillips, The Battle for Syria, 149.
19 Christopher Phillips, interview with Robert Ford, Washington, DC, June 15, 2015.
20 Christopher Phillips, interview with Bassma Kodmani, Paris, August 31, 2015.
21 Christopher Phillips, interview with Turkish official, Ankara, July 2012.
22 Kilic Bugra Kanat, A Tale of Four Augusts: Obama's Syria Policy (Washington DC: SETA, 2015), 99.
23 Jeffrey Goldberg, "The Obama Doctrine," The Atlantic, March 10, 2016.
25 Frank Gardner, "Saudi Arabia Flexing Its Muscles in Middle East," BBC News, August 8, 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-33825064.
26 Glenn Greenwald, "How Former Treasury Officials and the UAE Are Manipulating American Journalists," The Intercept, September 25, 2014, https://theintercept.com/2014/09/25/uae-qatar-camstoll-group/.
27 Giorgio Cafiero and Daniel Wagner, "Turkey and Qatar's Burgeoning Strategic Alliance," Middle East Institute, June 8, 2016, http://www.mei.edu/content/article/turkey-and-qatar-s-burgeoning-strate….
28 Soner Cagaptay, "Turkey's Rewarming Ties with Iran," Washington Institute for Near East Policy, September 29, 2016, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/turkeys-rewarmi….
29 Christopher Phillips, interview with former Turkish official, Istanbul, June 7, 2016; and interview with Turkish official, Ankara, June 9, 2016.
30 Christopher Phillips, interview with Turkish commentator, Istanbul, June 8, 2016.
31 Bruce Riedel, "Riyadh's Bold Gamble," Al-Monitor, September 20, 2016, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/09/saudi-arabia-foreign-….
32 Christopher Phillips, interviews with Saudi officials, Riyadh, January 26-28, 2016.