On February 6th, we commented on the dangers of Sunni military intervention in the affairs of Syria in an allied blog published by the NGO The Next Century Foundation.
The next day Kerry and Lavrov averted what might have been posturing, but which equally might have been a bluff that could be called with devastating consequences, by agreeing a plan for a ceasefire on terms that seemed reasonably equitable given the circumstances.
One of our themes in that lengthier blog posting was that the current Government in Saudi Arabia was expressing a new, comprehensible but dangerous neo-nationalist position that was not only popular within the Saudi middle classes but designed both to avert popular discontent and give cause for the Kingdom to develop a leading position, alongside Turkey, as the voice of conservative Sunni sectarianism. The list of its notional anti-terrorist allies is impressive - 20 Muslim nations including Egypt and Pakistan.
A great deal of the publicity surrounding Saudi intentions was, frankly, a matter of psychological operations - the apparent determination to intervene almost no matter what, the massed troops on the Syrian border, the suggestion that Anbar Province in Iraq would be seized and so on and so forth. It certainly fooled a lot of people. But there was something underlying all this that was in danger of turning a civil war into a regional war and, thence, if it was not for the common sense of Kerry and Lavrov and their bosses, a world war.
Any escalation by the Kingdom and Turkey would be based on one simple fact - the unprovoked (assuming you do not count the unsolved murder of Rafiq Hariri or stray Russian planes skimming over the Turkish border as provocation) entry into one country's sovereign territory (Syria) by two neighbouring states in defiance of international law and without the mandate of the UN in terms of humanitarian relief (which certainly seemed not to be one of the arguments being used). The proxies, the tails, would have severely wagged the superpower dog.
Perhaps all this sabre-rattling was productive in bringing the two superpowers to terms. It also helped to build a narrative of conservative Sunni resistance to insurgent terrorism. But it was a dangerous play nevertheless. Sabre-rattling since then has continued although closer inspection suggested that it was little more than getting cover for very limited prospective operations against the wrong sort of Kurd (Turkey) and for some special operations, over-flights and perhaps a bit of bombing in the future to even up the odds against Russian intervention.
Few, however, relish dog fights between Russians on the one side and Turks and Saudis on the other. The Kingdom also has its hands full dealing with simmering resentments in the Eastern Provinces and with its war in Yemen where (as the Russians were in Syria) it was invited in by the legitimate Government. But the central question is this - if Turkey and the Kingdom were to cross the Rubicon, just how much support could they expect from the West?
A cursory reading of debates in the House of Commons over recent weeks suggests sustained political attacks on the Kingdom for its actions in Yemen and its human rights stance. In the US, in an age of rampant political populism, the Kingdom has few friends in the electorate. Turkey under Erdogan is regarded as a conservative Islamic State with Caliphate pretensions despite being a democracy and member of NATO. Democratic politics in the West would probably make it extremely difficult for the Western powers to do much more than cringe in embarrassment.