Saudi-UAE offer to send troops ups stakes in Syria war
LONDON - The international response to the prospect of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sending ground troops to Syria to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) has been polarising, with reactions ranging from officials and pundits lauding the announcement to others declaring it the start of a wider regional war.
“The kingdom is ready to participate in any ground operations that the coalition (against ISIS) may agree to carry out in Syria,” Saudi Defence Ministry spokesman Brigadier-General Ahmed Asiri told Al-Arabiya TV. That sparked speculation and questions regarding the mechanics of such a deployment and the geopolitical gains and risks that could come with it.
Just days after the Saudi revelation, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash announced that the United Arab Emirates was prepared to send ground troops to fight ISIS in Syria. He stressed that any deployment would be relatively small.
“We are talking about troops on the ground that will lead the way, that will train, that will support and so forth. And I think our position remains the same and we will have to see how this progresses,” Gargash said, adding that US leadership would be a prerequisite.
Reiterating the need for US participation in leading the ground effort was Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, who earlier said: “The coalition will operate the way it has operated in the past, as an international coalition, even when there is a ground-force contingent in Syria.”
He added there would be no international coalition against ISIS in Syria if the United States did not lead the effort.
The Saudi declaration was welcomed by US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and the White House, where spokesman Josh Earnest said the ground troops announcement was a response to Carter’s plea for coalition partners to step up efforts in the fight against ISIS.
“So we certainly welcome the announcement from our partners in Saudi Arabia that they would be prepared to ramp up their commitment militarily to this effort,” Earnest said. During a visit to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, Carter echoed the sentiment and stressed that “it’ll be easier to sustain the defeat and it’ll be also easier to accomplish all the non-military aspects of the defeat if other countries that are part of the coalition accelerate their efforts at the same time”.
Regarding the possible motivations behind the announcement Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and former adviser to Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, says is meant to galvanise US support.
“I think it’s a statement and a reply to US accusations and the blame game that the Saudis are not doing enough to fight ISIS, so we are saying ‘OK, we are prepared to send in ground troops, what about you?’” Khashoggi said.
Khashoggi stressed that an upcoming visit by Saudi Defence Minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz to Brussels to engage with the anti-ISIS coalition is an indicator of how serious the moment is.
The timing of the ground troops proposal comes after efforts to kick-start UN peace talks in Geneva between warring factions involved in the more than 5-year civil war failed. The United States and Saudi Arabia support Syrian rebels at war with the Assad regime, which is supported by Russia, Iran and different offshoots of Hezbollah.
The Saudi ground troops proposal was met with unusual vitriol from Assad supporters, particularly from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
“(The Saudis) have made such a claim but I don’t think they are brave enough to do so… Even if they send troops, they would be definitely defeated… it would be suicide,” the head of the IRGC Major-General Mohammad Ali Jafari was quoted as saying.
However, according to Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia will never accept an Iranian victory in Syria, describing it as a “Saudi strategic condition” while also highlighting that the kingdom has excused all efforts to resolve the crisis in Syria, including withdrawal of support from the rebels.
“When the Saudis met with Syrian intelligence chief Ali Mamlouk, which was considered unorthodox, they offered to stop backing the Syrian rebels under the condition that Iran and Hezbollah also withdraw, and, of course, we know that did not happen.” he added.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE were two of the first Arab countries to join the US-led anti-ISIS coalition conducting air strikes on the terrorist group in Syria. At the end of 2015 Riyadh announced the formation of a military alliance made up of 34 Muslim countries to combat regional terrorism. The coalition will tackle “the Islamic world’s problem with terrorism and will be a partner in the worldwide fight against this scourge”, Prince Mohammed said at the time.