What would deploying Saudi ground forces in Syria achieve?
Saudi Arabia has said it could send ground troops to fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), something that the US-led, anti-ISIS coalition desperately needs if it truly wants to be successful in eradicating the group. Until now, fighting terrorism in Syria has been a fig leaf to cover the real intentions of nations that have intervened in the country’s civil war.
Syria’s skies are crowded with warplanes from the United States, France, United Kingdom, Russia, Turkey and Arab states, while its territory is filled with gunmen from all corners of the Earth, with many holding different beliefs and objectives.
So what would deploying Saudi ground forces to Syria achieve? Would a Saudi intervention be aimed at combating terrorism, as the statement announcing this claimed? Or will this actually seek to protect the Syrian opposition from being bombed by Russia? Or impose safe zones for Syrian refugees? Or secure territory that has been liberated from terrorist groups? Or even fight the Assad regime directly and seek to impose a new reality on the ground that could lead to a political solution?
On the other hand, where is Russia in all this? Will the Syrian regime’s closest ally accept such a profound shift in the balance of power on the ground and the imposition of new rules of engagement?
Saudi Arabia does not deny the risk posed by ISIS and other terrorist groups but Riyadh has always stressed that Syrian President Bashar Assad and his forces, which have killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians, bear the ultimate responsibility for all that has happened, including the rise of ISIS. This is all the result of the Assad regime’s poor decision-making and administration.
That is purportedly why Saudi Arabia is so insistent that Assad must leave; so long as Assad remains, so too will the terrorists. Whether one agrees or disagrees with this, Saudi Arabia’s indication that it could send ground troops to Syria is based on a number of points that date to the beginning of the conflict.
Saudi Arabia has publicly called for Assad’s departure, whatever happens; Riyadh has provided significant support to the Syrian opposition, politically, militarily and financially; Saudi Arabia is already a member of the anti-ISIS global coalition; US President Barack Obama has requested Arab troops be sent to Syria; Russia’s strong military intervention to back Assad changed the balance of power in the country; there has been a subsequent change in the West’s agenda with Assad’s departure no longer a priority as can be seen in UN Security Council Resolution 2254; Saudi Arabia has become increasingly active politically, including the establishment of the Islamic Military Alliance.
The most important, and most difficult question, is how will Russia view this intervention? Can Saudi Arabia risk conducting military operations in the country without coordinating with Russia and the Syrian regime? What role would the armed Syrian opposition play? What about Iran and Hezbollah?
There are more questions than answers at the moment and a pessimistic reading of the situation abounds. Even if it is assumed that all parties are acting in good faith and that they are all seeking to fight terrorism and eradicate ISIS from Syria, then questions remain: Would ISIS’s defeat in Syria end the group or merely transform it into a cross-border terrorist organisation like al-Qaeda? Will ISIS be eradicated in Syria, then only to rear its head in Libya, Yemen, Tunisia, Egypt and other regional states?
What is clear from the situation in Syria today is that this is part of a wider global struggle between superpowers and regional forces. The United States and its allies are locked in conflict with Russia, while Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey are involved in a regional conflict with sectarian overtones. So, all in all, the Saudi statement that it would be prepared to send troops to Syria can perhaps be viewed as a political move more than a military one.
Saudi Arabia’s willingness to send troops to fight ISIS is a response to accusations that it supports terrorism in Syria. It can also be seen as an attempt to deflect the false view that Arab and Muslim countries are turning a blind eye to Sunni terrorists, dissipate criticism of its support for Sunni Muslims and ensure that Syria is not devoid of Arab and Islamic troops at a time when non-Arab troops are being deployed there.
Finally, Saudi Arabia has been actively fighting terrorism since 1980. It does not need to mobilise Arab and Islamic forces and deploy them to Turkey to fight ISIS in Syria. Saudi Arabia’s forces are focused on combating terrorism domestically, while ISIS is just a stone throw’s away in Yemen.
Riyadh has the legal and moral justification and military capability to defeat ISIS in Yemen before it seeks to target the group elsewhere but if it deploys ground troops to Syria, anything could happen. Most frightening of all is that this could lead to a broader international conflict, a third world war on the 100th anniversary of the first.