Saudi Arabia’s military spokesman said on Thursday that his country’s decision to deploy ground forces in Syria was “final” and “irreversible,” despite warnings from Russia, Iran, and the Shiite government of Iraq that such a deployment could escalate the Syrian civil war into a regional conflict.
The immediate goal of the Saudi ground troops is to join the battle against the Islamic State. Kurdish news agency Rudaw reports the Saudis intend to “follow Washington’s lead” in any such ground operation, while U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said on Wednesday that ground forces were one of many ways Saudi Arabia and Bahrain could contribute to the anti-ISIS effort.
Business Insider quotes analysts saying that Saudi involvement would be largely “symbolic,” noting that the Saudi military is already over-extended in Yemen’s civil war, and in the bloody quagmire of the Syrian conflict, forces from the Sunni kingdom would almost certainly find themselves fighting other Sunnis — quite possibly other Saudis.
However, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi warned that Saudi troops in Syria would be a “dangerous escalation” of the conflict.
Syrian dictator Bashar Assad agreed, saying in a new interview that he thought Saudi Arabia might join forces with Turkey to invade Syria. Iran followed up by warning Turkey not to align itself with the Saudis: “Be cautious! Do not bet on the loser.”
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev cut to the chase, warning that Saudi and/or Turkish intervention in Syria could be a step toward “unleashing a new world war.”
Although the Saudi proposal for ground troops is premised on helping its Western and regional allies fight ISIS, the kingdom made it clear they are still diametrically opposed to the goals of the Russo-Iranian alliance in Syria:
#BREAKING Saudi FM says objective is removal of Assad in Syria and “we will achieve it”
— Al Arabiya English (@AlArabiya_Eng) February 12, 2016
Turkey also wants Assad gone and has long maintained the bloody Syrian civil war and refugee crisis could have been avoided if Western powers had used force to remove him sooner. Russia and Iran are equally adamant that Assad will stay.
The Russians might doing more than merely talking about war with the Turks and Saudis, as their current regional military exercises look an awful lot like massing troops against Turkey — and perhaps even Turkey’s NATO allies. It would not be the first time Russia has claimed it was conducting military exercises while actually preparing for war, and shots have already been fired between Turkish and Russian air forces.
The Saudis have several reasons for getting involved in Syria and going far beyond assisting with the anti-ISIS campaign. From a political standpoint, the Saudis have been taunting their rivals in Iran about not doing enough to fight terrorism, so they need some skin in the game against the Islamic State.
Business Insider notes the Saudis are also eager to check Iran’s regional ambitions and disappointed at the lack of support they’ve gotten from Washington as tensions rise between Sunni and Shiite. The Saudis have so far been on the losing side in that conflict, facing regional isolation while Western money pours into post-sanction Iran, and Tehran’s prestige is enhanced by its victory over the Obama administration in the nuclear deal. The Saudis and their Gulf allies cannot easily stomach the defeat of the rebel forces they’re backing in Syria or the spectacle of Syria becoming part of the new Russian-backed Iranian empire.
Further evidence that Syria will be an important part of the Saudi’s great game against Iran was the announcement of massive military exercises in northern Saudi Arabia over the next few days, with participants from 21 countries, including Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates. The operation, code-named “Northern Thunder,” was touted as “the most important in the past five decades conducted by Gulf, Arab, and Islamic countries” by military analyst Col. Ibrahim al-Marie at Arab News.
Al-Marie claimed there was no direct link between the Northern Thunder exercise and Saudi troop deployment to Syria, but then began talking about Iran’s efforts to control Iraq and Syria by injecting Shiite extremists into their populations, in a program of “demographic occupation.” The Saudis want Iran and Russia to know they’re ready to fight on every front. If they feel compelled to prove it, the Syrian mess could indeed escalate very rapidly.