Is a Saudi intervention in Syria possible?

Friday 19/02/2016

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces have secured a number of strategic victories against opposition forces, thanks largely to Russian air support. The regime also won a political victory when the Syrian opposi­tion withdrew from the Geneva III peace talks.

The opposition had only agreed to attend the talks after the United States guaranteed a ceasefire — something that Assad and Russia failed to live up to. A partial cessation of hostilities was subsequently agreed to, al­though Moscow did not explicitly promise to end air strikes. The prospects of renewed peace talks are uncertain.

US President Barack Obama’s policies in the Middle East have been, and will no doubt con­tinue to be, a major source of disappointment. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has tried to fix Washington’s mistakes in a way that falls in line with the kingdom’s historic policies and national security priorities, even talking about direct military ac­tion, as it did in Yemen.

Some experts argue that Riyadh is distancing itself from Washing­ton’s regional strategy when it is at odds with Saudi national inter­ests. At the same time, Riyadh is seeking to preserve its strategic interests with the United States and ensure that bilateral ties are not affected by differences over foreign policy. Riyadh is walking a fine line.

Let us focus on the reality on the ground. This is a reality in which Assad and Russian forces, which falsely claim to be fight­ing the Islamic State (ISIS), are, in fact, targeting the Free Syr­ian Army (FSA) and other rebel forces. While it is the FSA and other rebel groups that are fight­ing ISIS, weakening them only strengthens ISIS.

The FSA, which is supported by Saudi Arabia, finds itself between Assad and his backers on one side and ISIS on the other. It is facing Russian bombardment, as are Syria’s Islamist rebel groups. Only a small proportion of Russian air strikes target ISIS positions, despite Moscow’s claims that it is the major target of its military operations in Syria.

Syria’s rebel forces are in retreat thanks to Russia’s unwa­vering support for Assad, which is something that four years of support from the Islamic Revo­lutionary Guards Corps, Hezbol­lah and Iraqi militias could not accomplish.

Based on these victories, it is becoming increasingly clear that Assad believes a military solu­tion to the Syrian crisis is within his grasp. Then, and only then, would Russia and Assad turn their firepower against ISIS.

Recently, Riyadh said it would be willing to send ground troops to intervene against ISIS in Syria but only as part of the US-led coa­lition. Saudi Arabia has deployed fighter jets to Turkey’s Incirlik air base, where they will join the aerial campaign against ISIS.

But if Saudi Arabia is to get involved directly in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, this must include targeting those who stand behind the group.

Riyadh is well aware exactly how ISIS emerged, namely after a large number of prisoners were freed in Iraq and Syria. This is not to mention the group’s subse­quent occupation of Mosul, Iraq, by a few hundred ISIS fighters.

There are also the popular mi­litias that were formed to fight ISIS. In reality, these militias support Assad and are fighting the Syrian opposition under the pretext of battling ISIS. These militias represent a grave threat and must be eliminated.

In a region that is full of uncertainly, there is no guaran­tee what Washington might do, based on its decision-making concerning the region since the start of the Syrian conflict. Saudi Arabia also does not share a direct land border with Syria, complicating any move to send ground troops to the country.

Riyadh is prepared to inter­vene militarily against ISIS but only under the umbrella of the US-led coalition. In short, any intervention must be part of an international coalition to fight ISIS — ultimately that is the only way to defeat it.

This requires major interna­tional coordination and sup­port, including planning within Syria’s airspace where a number of air forces are targeting various groups.

Ultimately, any Saudi inter­vention in Syria would require significant coordination with regional and global powers and would be difficult to organise.