Saudi Arabia to Deploy Ground Forces in Syria: Middle East Turmoil Greater Than Ever

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (SCF) – The effectiveness of Russian airstrikes has helped the regular Syrian army encircle the rebel-held countryside north of the contested city of Aleppo raising concerns that rebels could lose the war in Syria. The prospects send shivers up the spine of some countries that belong to the US-led coalition and are adamant in their desire to overthrow the government of Bashar Assad. Now a major player has made public its readiness to send troops to the war-torn country.

Saudi Arabia would be ready to deploy army units in Syria should the US-led coalition call for ground operations. This is the first time the Saudi government openly expressed its willingness to deploy boots on the ground. «The kingdom is ready to participate in any ground operations that the coalition (against Islamic State) may agree to carry out in Syria», said military spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed al-Asiri during an interview with Al Arabiya News Channel.

«…we believe that aerial operations are not the ideal solution and there must be a twin mix of aerial and ground operations», Asiri added.

Thousands of special forces could be deployed, likely in coordination with Turkey, Saudi sources told the Guardian.

Before that, Ankara had also made known its readiness to deploy troops in Syria. It’s not accidental that Saudi Arabia and Turkey set up a military coordination body a few weeks ago.

US Defense Secretary Ash Carter lost no time to welcome the Saudi offer to participate in any ground operations in Syria launched by the US-led coalition.

Carter said he looked forward to discussing the offer of ground troops with the Saudi defense minister in Brussels next week.

A ground operation of Saudi Arabia and Turkey was on the agenda for quite some time. The validity of this information was confirmed by the Huffington Post.

The talks between the two states are brokered by Qatar. The plans envision that Turkey would provide ground troops supported by Saudi Arabian airstrikes to assist «moderate» Syrian opposition fighters against the Syrian government.

It makes spring to mind another statement on Syria. Last November, the United Arab Emirates said it would be willing to participate in multilateral counterterrorism efforts on the ground in Syria.

No matter how limited its military contribution may be, the UAE’s participation would be important politically. At least three states said they would join in the ground operation if the action were supported by the United States leading a coalition of 65 members.

As a result of the planned military action there will be some blunt military realities to face. Serious questions remain about the scope of any Saudi-Turkish military involvement. It will require significant funds. Saudi Arabia is now engaged in a messy war in Yemen. It would have difficulty fighting and sustaining two wars. Saudi Arabia and Turkey will shoulder the brunt of the effort as the US, and, probably, some other states of the coalition like the UAE, will hardly deploy significant ground forces.

The operation would exacerbate regional divisions along sectarian lines – Sunni vs. Shia, as the would-be intruders (including the UAE, if the November statement is still valid) are all Sunni-dominated states. Saudi Arabia leads a grouping of Sunni countries including the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Sudan, Somalia and to a lesser extent Egypt. As well, Saudi Arabia sponsors a number of Sunni non-state actors in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. Meanwhile Iran leads a group of Shia actors including the Syrian Regime, Hezbollah, Ansar Allah (Houthis), and a vast array of militia groups in Iraq contained with the «Popular Mobilization Units».

The Saudi-Turkey strategy is driven by the fear of Iran’s Shia regional hegemony. Iran’s regional influence continued to expand even in the times it was under sanctions. It’s enough to remember that the Arab Gulf states (except Oman) reaction to the successful conclusion of the Iran deal was close to hysteria. This attitude strongly suggests that the underlying concern of the Gulf States (plus Turkey and Israel) was not really the danger of Iranian nuclear weapons, but rather the threat of Iran’s growing political influence in the region, from Iraq to Syria to Lebanon and Yemen.

Apparently, the fear was that with international sanctions lifted, Iran’s political influence throughout the region would grow. True, animosity toward Iran (Persians) and Shia Muslims is widely spread in Saudi Arabia and other countries where the austere Wahhabi doctrine is predominant. This fact has not prevented political interaction between Saudi Arabia and Iran on occasion, as well as private social interaction and intermarriage among Sunnis and Shia Muslims over the centuries. By casting its policies in sectarian terms, the Saudi leadership appears to be burning the bridges that will be very difficult to rebuild.

Even if Saudi Arabia and Turkey will shoulder the brunt of the war effort on the ground, the US will have to take sides being involved in the Sunni-Shia stand-off, should the operation start.

Saudi Arabia, together with Qatar and Turkey, is supporting and funding radical Sunni Islamists in Syria (Nusra Front and other al-Qaeda affiliates). It may empower an uncontrollable coalition of extremists whose activities make them essentially indistinguishable from the Islamic State (IS).

Image Source: (N.Y. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Harley Jelis/Released)

Image Source: (N.Y. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Harley Jelis/Released)

Deposing Assad is not a solution, but rather a way to reverse the players, turning many current regime supporters into insurgents while fueling a contest for supremacy among the al-Qaeda militias and IS. And Syria’s conflicts on its borders (potentially with Turkey, Jordan and Israel) would not subside once radical Islamist forces were entrenched in Syrian territory. Just as US and Saudi support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan came back to haunt America in the form of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, those who have been encouraging Al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria will not be immune to the inevitable backlash.

It is an illusion to believe that these radical groups could be contained or controlled by their sponsors. Helping extremists in Syria is like cutting off the nose to spite the face. The statements made by US official and President Obama’s decision to send elements of 101th airborne division to the region show that the United States is inclined to get involved and lend support to Saudi and Turkey’s policies. At first glance, it may seem to be an acceptable price to pay for short term political goals. In reality, it is a tempting illusion. The sectarian hatreds being unleashed today in the Middle East will not simply disappear. The consequences of these games will be felt for many years, perhaps, generations.

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Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova hit the nail on its head in her remarks regarding the Saudi announcement.

«I am afraid to ask, have you already fought off everyone in Yemen?» Zakharova posted an ironical comment on her page in Facebook.

The recent news about the US sending troops to Syria, Turkey’s announced intent to launch a ground operation there and Saudi Arabia’s statement on its readiness to join «any» military campaign on Syrian soil serve as indicators of imminent large-scale war. It was not accidental that the opposition supported by Saudi-Arabia and Turkey did its best to stymie the Geneva-3 peace talks. The deployment of ground troops in Syria is not only an outright violation of international law. The action will bring the Russia-Syria-Iran coalition and the US-led collation to the brink of collision. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other states willing to start this dangerous game rely on the US support. The United States is the key country. It can and must use its influence to avoid the worst from happening. It can direct the process and keep the situation from sliding into an uncontrollable conflict with unpredictable repercussions.

For instance, the US State Secretary John Kerry enjoys close relations with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The foreign chiefs could urgently meet to discuss the situation. Let them be open and above board discussing each other’s intentions and the implications to follow. Russia and the US managed to keep the world from falling in to abyss in the days of the 1962 Cuban crisis to prove that a dialogue and political interaction can work wonders. The US has great responsibility for what’s happening. The time to take a diplomatic action is now. The United States knows perfectly well Russia will meet its effort halfway.

This report was prepared by Peter KORZUN for Strategic Culture Foundation.