Saudi offer of troops in Syria may not be so ‘irreversible’
Military units from 20 predominantly Muslim countries began assembling in Saudi Arabia in mid-February for what was billed as the Gulf region’s biggest military exercise.
The stated purpose of the Operation Northern Thunder exercises, announced just days before, was to send a clear message demonstrating that the kingdom and its allies in the Middle East, Africa and Asia “stand united in confronting all challenges and preserving peace and stability in the region”, according to the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA).
The announcement came hard on the heels of a statement by Brigadier-General Ahmed Asiri, a Saudi military spokesman, that the kingdom had taken an “irreversible decision” to send ground troops to Syria to fight the Islamic State (ISIS).
ISIS might well be the nominal military target of any such intervention but the underlying diplomatic objective of the new Saudi mode was to put pressure on the US administration.
Riyadh’s frustration at Washington’s reluctance to make a bigger commitment to intervention in Syria, beyond conducting air strikes against ISIS, has grown in the face of the mounting engagement of Russia in the conflict on the side of President Bashar Assad’s regime in Damascus.
The prospect of such a Saudi military initiative provoked dire warnings from Moscow of the risks that Saudi “adventurism” would provoke a wider war, as well as ridicule from the kingdom’s regional rival, Iran, which dismissed the threat to send in troops as a bluff by Riyadh.
Even some of Saudi Arabia’s friends were unenthusiastic. Sameh Shoukry, the foreign minister of Egypt, which is taking part in the Northern Thunder exercises, said Saudi intervention would be a unilateral decision and that Cairo would continue to focus on supporting moves towards a diplomatic solution to the war.
US President Barack Obama’s administration, meanwhile, politely welcomed the contribution that Saudi Arabia might choose to make to enhance coalition efforts to contain ISIS. But it expressed no inclination to be pressured by the Saudis, or indeed Washington’s NATO partner Turkey, into a more robust response that could lead to direct conflict with the Assad regime or its Russian ally.
Riyadh was soon rowing back, stressing that any Saudi initiative would be limited and would be strictly in the context of the US-led coalition’s strategy against ISIS.
During a visit to Morocco, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said: “There is a discussion with regard to a ground force contingent, or a special forces contingent, to operate in Syria by this international US-led coalition against ISIS and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia has expressed its readiness to provide special forces to such operations should they occur.”
That conditional statement appeared to fall short of an “irreversible decision” to commit ground forces and reflected the caution and conservatism of traditional Saudi foreign policy, which has generally ruled out unilateral action, particularly on the military front.
In the year since the accession of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, however, Saudi Arabia has displayed a more aggressive and activist position on regional affairs. It has become increasingly bogged down in the Yemen civil war, in which it first intervened within months of Salman becoming king.
The Yemen quagmire, which Riyadh sees as part of its proxy conflict with Iran, is one reason cooler heads in Saudi Arabia might be questioning the wisdom of a further military intervention in Syria.
Like many recent initiatives, the idea for creating an anti-terror alliance of Sunni states came from the 30-year-old deputy crown prince and defence minister, Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz. Asiri, who announced the decision to commit forces to Syria, is the prince’s military adviser.
As to the impenetrable nature of decision-making within the House of Saud, it is impossible to say how much support there is for a more activist stance in foreign affairs. Among commentators who have detected tension among the leadership, Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Middle East think-tank, recently wrote: “Few doubt the intense rivalry in the House of Saud between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz, and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, respectively the notional intended successor and successor-in-waiting to the ageing King Salman.”
He suggested that “along with the sense that Saudi military capabilities are being stretched, a growing perception holds that the MbN (Nayef) versus MbS (Salman) tensions are unsustainable within the Saudi power structure”.
Jubeir’s recent clarification on the terms of any Saudi intervention in Syria, along with Riyadh’s pragmatic decision to agree with Russia to freeze oil production levels to reverse international crude price falls, may be an indication that the pragmatists are in the ascendancy, however temporarily.