Why the Saudis offered to send ground forces to Syria

Friday 12/02/2016
Saudi troops at their base in Yemen’s southern port city of Aden

The revelation that Saudi Arabia has offered ground forces to participate in an international force to fight in Syria signals once more the abandonment by Riyadh of an 82-year Saudi policy to steer clear of regional military conflicts.

That policy has proven for a while of inestimable value to the desert kingdom.

In the 1950s, Egypt’s charis­matic leader Gamal Abdel Nasser seemed destined to sweep all before him in a Soviet-supported revolutionary tide across the Mid­dle East. But then Nasser made the mistake of sending ground forces into Yemen to back a so­cialist regime against traditional tribal rebels. The Egyptians got sidetracked and exhausted in that long, futile struggle.

Saddam Hussein seized full power in Iraq in 1978. Within a year he plunged into an 8-year-long, bloody war with Iran. Only three years after that conflict end­ed, Saddam even more recklessly invaded neighbouring Kuwait in 1990 and menaced Saudi Arabia. This led to the destruction of Iraq’s army by a US- and Saudi-led coalition.

Why then has Riyadh aban­doned such a venerable policy that has served it so well for so long?

Saudi comments about possibly intervening in Syria reflect the clear recognition that Riyadh has no confidence whatsoever in the fatuous US “training” programmes to create yet more worthless forc­es that melt away on first contact and cannot stand by themselves.

This pattern has repeated itself across the Middle East, the Maghreb and vast regions of Eura­sia so often over the past 14 years that it seems to reflect a long-last­ing psychosis or irrational compul­sion to mindlessly repeat the same fatuous and futile mistakes.

US President Barack Obama has admitted that the United States cannot withdraw its air force and military “advisers” from Af­ghanistan: If it did, that country’s national army, created and trained by US experts, would collapse in the face of the revived Taliban.

The much vaunted Free Syrian Army and other US-trained forces in Syria, on whom hundreds of millions more dollars were lavished, never even got off the ground.

Iraq’s National Army, the pride and joy of Pentagon planners, dis­integrated in the summer of 2014 against Islamic State (ISIS) forces vastly inferior to it in numbers and equipment.

Yet US policymakers have learned nothing. They remain de­termined to repeat the failed and discredited policies of George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. New forces in Iraq are now being trained. It is clear that Libya’s turn will come next.

Why have all these efforts failed so miserably?

First, neo-colonialist foreigners of a different culture and religion cannot motivate any force they recruit with discipline, morale and the willingness to fight and die. Only well-established govern­ments in the region that have not been imposed by foreign powers far across the oceans can do that.

Second, the corruption and incompetence of US army-building exercises have been repeatedly documented since the Vietnam war. But this lesson has never been learned.

That is why Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and his ad­visers have — reluctantly but with clear eyes — concluded that the next US efforts to build “the best armed forces ever” will utterly fail in Syria, just as they have done in so many other places.

Sending ground forces into Syria has many dangers of its own but relying on American “expertise” to do the job of restoring stability and order would be far worse.