In September 2014, the White House emphasized the importance of obtaining support from Sunni Arab states prior to launching an air campaign against Daesh (Islamic State) targets in Iraq and Syria. For the Obama administration, successfully soliciting the help of four Gulf Arab kingdoms—Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—in addition to Egypt and Jordan, represented a major foreign policy achievement. The last time Washington assembled such an international coalition to wage a military campaign on Arab soil was Operation Desert Storm in 1991, although on a much grander scale.
Since fall 2015, American politicians on both sides of the aisle have grown disappointed with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members’ contribution to the US-led efforts to fightDaesh. A growing number of voices in the US government have accused these monarchies of shifting their focus away from the campaign against Daesh in Iraq and Syria to the conflict in Yemen. Indeed, in recent months, the percentage of the Washington-led coalition bombs dropped on Daesh targets by GCC fighter jets has been near zero, with the US and France doing virtually all of the heavy lifting.
However, recent declarations from officials in Saudi Arabia raise questions about Riyadh’s priorities with respect to the regional threat posed by Daesh. On February 4, Saudi Brigadier General Ahmed Asseri told Al Jazeera that “the Saudi kingdom announced its readiness to participate with ground troops … against” Daesh because “air strikes cannot be enough.” A few days later, the UAE joined Saudi Arabia in saying a real campaign against the group has “to include a ground force.” US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter welcomed the news, but a healthy degree of skepticism about his enthusiasm appears warranted.
It makes sense for Saudi Arabia to deploy ground forces to fight Daesh in Syria, particularly given that the terrorist organization has its sights set on the kingdom, and that the Saudis have one of the world’s most highly armed militaries. Having waged scores of attacks in the kingdom through its web of “homegrown” cells, Daesh poses a significant threat to Saudi security and national cohesion. Incorporating Mecca and Medina into its so-called “caliphate” is unquestionably an objective of the group, which views the Saud family as corrupt, immoral puppets of Western powers who live an opulent and offensive lifestyle.
Daesh has supporters in many parts of the kingdom, particularly near the Iraqi-Saudi border, where tribal connections shaping bonds between some of the kingdom’s subjects and Daeshare important, and often overlooked.
Yet winning ground wars requires a high level of experience and motivation. If history is any guide, the Saudis are unlikely to sacrifice much of their own blood to fight for their nation. In Yemen, for example, although the Saudi armed forces are clearly engaged in the battle, Riyadh has recruited hundreds of Colombian mercenaries to fight the Houthi rebels, and the Saudi-led coalition has relied on African states such as Sudan to do much fighting on the ground in exchange for Saudi petro-dollars.
In addition, with Riyadh and Tehran backing opposing sides in Syria, this conflict has been an important battleground in the Saudi-Iranian geopolitical rivalry, which manifests itself in many forms across the greater Middle East and Asia. For Riyadh to deploy its forces into Syria to fight Daesh would imply that the Saudis are willing to fight the group alongside the kingdom’s Iranian, Russian, Lebanese and Syrian foes. The likelihood of such a development appears very low, particularly given Riyadh’s steadfast commitment to backing rebels fighting the Assad regime, not to mention the degree to which its military forces are so focused on the Yemen conflict, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.
Proxy war between two nuclear powers
Although the Syrian crisis is fluid and increasingly complicated, there is reason for the Assad regime to feel emboldened. The Syrian army—fighting alongside Russian soldiers in ground operations—has made notable gains so far this year, recently seizing the city of Salma from rebel forces.
The Russian intervention in this conflict, in defense of the Assad regime, has severely undermined the agendas of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other actors seeking to topple President Bashar al-Assad, particularly with the Syrian army now cutting off Ankara’s lines to rebel forces in Aleppo—Syria’s commercial capital.
Unquestionably, if Assad’s forces were to take back Aleppo, there would likely be a significant turning of the tide in Syria’s civil war. Despite Saudi claims that their interests in possibly deploying ground forces to Syria center around defeating Daesh, their support for Jabhat al-Nusra and other Islamist extremist groups that are ideologically similar to Daesh suggest that Riyadh’s talk of sending troops is a response to the successful collaboration between Moscow and Damascus in squeezing out Saudi-backed rebel groups in Aleppo.
The Syrian foreign minister’s warning against any military intervention on the part of states entering the fray without the consent of Damascus underscores how this grander geopolitical struggle goes far beyond defeating Daesh. Indeed, the entry of Saudi forces into Syria, which experts agree would need US air cover, entails the risk of a confrontation between the kingdom and its NATO allies on one side, and the forces fighting for Assad—most importantly Russia—on the other. What all sides would presumably wish to avoid is a scenario in which a proxy war escalates between the world’s top two nuclear powers.
Despite the potentially explosive risks and uncertainties, some officials in the US are likely to continue to welcome more Sunni Arab states in the fight against Daesh, particularly given neoconservatives’ view that Russia and Iran’s recent successes in Syria are unacceptable.
This week, the Saudi declaration is certain to be a topic of conversation when American officials meet in Brussels with defense ministers from various members in the US-led coalition. A deployment of Saudi ground forces into Syria, if it were to occur, would mark a significant shift in that country’s nearly five-year long conflict. Yet whether Riyadh actually sends troops to Syria remains to be seen. If the Saudis do so, it would represent the first time in history that the kingdom would commit ground forces to two battles in the Middle East simultaneously. Seeing is believing.
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Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions and co-author of the forthcoming book “Global Risk Agility and Decision Making” (Macmillan, May 2016).
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