What is the Saudi Crown Prince doing in Turkey?

Muhammad Bin Nayef is visiting Turkey at a crucial time as the Syrian regime is resorting to an unprecedented aerial bombardment of opposition-held parts of eastern Aleppo, killing hundreds of civilians.

Photo by: AP (Archive )
Photo by: AP (Archive )

The Syrian regime of Bashar Al Assad has bombarded civilian areas relentlessly in last couple of days, something which concerns both Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

On the surface, the visit seems routine. Just another attempt to improve commercial ties between Riyadh and Ankara. But Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef is not visiting Turkey at a regular time.

With Turkey having launched their incursion into northern Syria less than a month ago, how to resolve the crisis in Turkey's southern neighbour will likely be on the top of the agenda.

During his first official visit, Nayef, with Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir in toe, is scheduled to meet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. 

Why is the Saudi visit a big deal?

Nayef’s two-day visit comes as Russia and the regime of Bashar al Assad have carried out one of the most deadly aerial bombardments in opposition-held eastern Aleppo.

According to the United Nations, at least 96 children have been killed by incendiary and bunker bombs dropped by Syrian regime forces in the last six days.

This latest blitzkrieg follows the collapse of a ceasefire deal over Syria.

The ceasefire was a result of a promise by Russia and the US to give peace a chance and let much needed humanitarian aid reach cities where the opposition holds sway.

While Moscow backs Assad, opposition fighters aligned with Turkey are supported by Washington. Two Cold War enemies are once again staging proxy battles in a foreign land.

However, Turkey has also expressed willingness to work with Russia for finding a solution to the Syrian crisis. 

Intensive bombing on Aleppo has turned buildings into tattered structures but opposition continues to resist the Assad regime. Source: Reuters

What is at stake for Saudi Arabia and Turkey in Syria?

Diplomatically, both countries support each other's stance on the conflict-hit countries of Syria, Yemen, and Iraq.

But when it comes to Syria, their shared goal is even more aligned.

According to estimates, around half a million people have been killed since the civil war began in 2011. The fighting has displaced millions. More than two million people are seeking refuge in Turkey alone.

Turkey's army is actively engaged in northern Syria, backing the Free Syrian Army which is fighting DAESH as well as the Assad regime's forces. Saudi Arabia supports many of the same rebel groups.

Both Riyadh and Ankara have made it clear that as long as Assad remains in power, lasting peace cannot come to Syria.

Is any other way being considered to dislodge Assad?

In the recent past, Saudi Arabia has expressed its intention of arming the rebels with MANPADs or Man Portable Air Defense Systems.

In February, Jubeir told German publication Der Spiegal that giving surface-to-air missiles to rebels was an option being considered.

“Yes. We believe that introducing surface-to-air missiles in Syria is going to change the balance of power on the ground. It will allow the moderate opposition to be able to neutralise the helicopters and aircraft that are dropping chemicals and have been carpet-bombing them, just like surface-to-air missiles in Afghanistan were able to change the balance of power there," he said.

The CIA has also looked into the possibility of arming moderate fighters with surface-to-air missiles.

Intelligence officials of some Middle Eastern countries and the US also discussed details on how to make that happen, according to the Wall Street Journal.

At the time it was being said that such a plan will be given a shot only if a political process for reaching a truce fails.

Besides conventional weapons, Syrian and Russian warplanes are also accused of using chemical weapons against civilians in Syria. Source: Reuters

How can MANPADs make a difference? 

It could be a game changer for the Syrian conflict if rebels get their hands on surface-to-air missiles. The use of such weapons by poorly trained rebels against established forces is not without precedent.

The shoulder-fired Stinger missiles changed the course of war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The dominance of Russian jets and helicopters ended the day Afghan fighters were supplied with Stinger missiles by CIA.