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Will Saudi really send ground troops to Syria?

February 10, 2016 at 4:27 pm

As the one year anniversary of the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in Yemen draws nearer, Saudi Brigadier General Ahmed Asiri announced to Al-Arabiya TV that the Kingdom is likely to take part in deploying ground forces to Syria to fight Daesh if needed. The UAE later announced it would do the same. This move was not only announced after the failure of the Geneva talks, but also at a time when the Russian offensive in Syria is increasing.

According to the US State Department, only 10 per cent of Russian airstrikes actually target Daesh. This is largely because their main target has been Aleppo which was predominantly controlled by opposition forces. However, in the first month of the Russian airstrikes, Daesh have made gains in northern Aleppo, weakening the rebel forces further. Russia, however, equates all groups fighting the Assad regime to Daesh. At the same time, little is being done to target Daesh’s infrastructure in Syria. The Tuweinan gas facility which is currently being run by Daesh has not been a target for any of the parties fighting the terror group. If anything, Daesh has carried out business deals with the Russians and Assad regime via the facility.

Saudi’s announcement that it will take part in the Syrian ground forces also counteracts Al-Assad’s recent gains after Iranian involvement became more direct. As opposed to Iran’s more traditional strategy of arming both Syrian and non-Syrian pro-Assad Shia militias, it has sent Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to assist the army; speculation rose that they were taking part in battles. Tehran is now openly admitting to ground involvement in Syria. More Iranians are being killed in Syria and coffins are openly being sent to Iran for public funerals in front of the international community.

When looking at the Saudi stance, it is clear that its decision to consider committing ground troops is ultimately a reaction to the advancement of Assad forces, the policy of treating all anti-Assad forces and the ultimate harm to which the Saudi-backed opposition fighters are coming to.

In August, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir stated that Al-Assad has no future in Syria and is part of the problem, not the solution, to the conflict. To date, there have been no signs of Riyadh changing its stance.

In October, as Russia’s presence in Syria intensified, Al-Jubeir also promised that Saudi’s support for Syria’s moderate rebels would also intensify, but because of their commitments in Yemen and their early hesitation to commit ground troops to Yemen, it was largely unexpected for Saudi to signal any commitment for ground troops in Syria.

In addition to halting Iranian expansionism in the region and their intrinsic support for the Syrian opposition, there are multiple factors that have motivated this decision. Since the death of King Abdullah in January 2015, Saudi has changed its position as a political actor in the region and in the international community. King Salman inherited Saudi with a foreign policy stringed with contradictions and miscalculations. The late King Abdullah’s support for dictatorships in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region tied Saudi in a web in which there was little leverage to deter the ultimate threat of Iranian expansionism. The mobilisation of Egypt’s Al-Sisi’s coup not only burnt any bridges that were built with the Muslim Brotherhood, but forced Riyadh to allow Iran to exert its influence through Arab dictatorships like the Assad regime.

When Salman came to power he immediately made many internal changes. The most important was the removal of Khalid Al-Tuwaijri, the head of the Royal Court. Al-Tuwaijri was the catalyst of King Abdullah’s policy that Iran was less of a threat to Saudi than the Brotherhood and was known for his nationalist, pan-Arab dictatorship sentiments. He also took this as a chance to allow the younger Saudi generation to play a bigger role in the Kingdom’s executive politics, which was one of the reasons he appointed Al-Jubeir as foreign minister.

Al-Jubeir is not affiliated with the royal family and was previously critiqued for being sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood and having pan-Sunni ideals. During the past year of his reign, King Salman ensured the mood inside the Saudi political machine moved to lean towards a more pan-Arabist and pan-Sunni sentiment.

Turkey and the UAE have also expressed interest in ground forces in Syria. Both countries would be of great assistance to Saudi Arabia. Turkey’s military is not only ranked 10th best in the world, with a strong manpower and increasingly strengthening intelligence capabilities, but – like Saudi – they have a vested interest in ensuring the Assad regime does not make gains and that Daesh does not take advantage of the Syrian power vacuum.

The Kurdish YPG, which Turkey deems a terrorist organisation, has become friendlier with Russia after Moscow begun arming it. This is putting Al-Assad at a greater strategic advantage. Russia has also started to show active support for the YPG’s political plight, allowing it to open an office in Moscow. However, for Ankara this means an added possibility of unrest on its land with Russia’s help, and the potential for the creation of an independent Kurdistan, something that neither Turkey nor Riyadh want to see.

Unlike Turkey, the UAE does not have a direct vested interest in ensuring stability along the Syrian-Turkish border. For it, supporting Saudi comes from a need for stability in the GCC. Ultimately, if Saudi was to commit troops alone, it could potentially destabilise the rest of the GCC. The UAE’s military capabilities have been advancing at a very high rate and they have experience in ground operations due to their participation in every major US military operation since 1991.

Despite the threats from Saudi’s opposition, it is becoming more explicit that it is now more willing to carry itself as a regional military power and to enhance the perception that it is the guardian of Arabism and Sunnism in the MENA. Whereas last year, the thought of Saudis forming a coalition to lead a war against Iranian-backed militias was unthinkable, this year the power politics in the region seem to be changing.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.