- Saudi Arabia has publicly committed to send ground troops to Syria.
- While there ostensibly to fight against Islamic State fighters, it is more likely they will fight to shore up Saudi Arabia’s regional influence.
- By entering directly into the conflict, however, Saudi Arabia has enhanced the risk of widening it by potentially drawing in NATO forces against Russian forces.
- Given the potential for an even greater conflict, Saudi Arabia will be well-advised to reconsider the military option and it is likely it will do so.
Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel Al-Jubeir, has been reported as saying that Syrian strongman, President Bashar al-Assad, will be ousted, by force if necessary. This is a continuation of the consistent Saudi stance on al-Assad, viz. that he must be removed from power by force if diplomatic efforts or political processes cannot achieve that goal. As if to emphasise that threat, the Arab News reported that armed forces from twenty countries, including Pakistan, have assembled at King Khalid Military City in Hafar Al-Batin in northern Saudi Arabia for the “Thunder of the North” military exercise. The exercise, described as ‘the most important’ military manoeuvre ever staged in the region, involved air, ground and naval forces from 16 February to 4 March. It is meant to send a ‘clear message’ that ‘the Kingdom, its sister, brotherly and friendly countries joining the manoeuvre are standing together.’
If the reports are to be believed, it could be reasonably concluded that Saudi Arabia is, indeed, preparing its troops for battle in Syria. In addition to its own forces, there appears to be a developing coalition of forces from Bahrain, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Malaysia, the Maldives, Morocco, Mauritania, Mauritius, Oman, Qatar, Pakistan, Senegal, Sudan, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates – all Sunni-majority states that, in one form or to one degree or another, are influenced by Riyadh. If this coalition were to enter the Syrian conflict they could, indeed, make a situation that al-Assad finds difficult close to impossible for him. It is just as difficult, however, to gauge how this coalition could be sent to Syria to take part in the on-going hostilities there. Even if the coalition forces were to be deployed to Syria, the decision to deploy them there would be taken by Saudi Arabia – assuming for the moment that Riyadh actually controlled the coalition’s disparate elements – only after a great deal of debate and soul-searching.
It is fairly obvious by now that the Syrian conflict is essentially a proxy war for influence in the region. The main rivalries are between Saudi Arabia and Iran on the one hand and Russia and the US on the other. It is the other actors in the conflict and their motivations that tend to cloud the issue. Some of these include Turkey’s decision to make use of the opportunity to prosecute its own vendetta against Kurdish separatists, al-Assad trying to eliminate his opponents once and for all, and the European Union, dithering as ever, trying to reconcile its need to work with an opportunistic Ankara to stem the flow of displaced Syrians via Turkey to Europe and yet be seen as remaining true to its vaunted principle of upholding human rights under all circumstances by chastising Ankara in indirect terms for its bombing of Kurdish civilian targets. Other factors that further confuse the situation include the growing antagonism between Russia and Turkey and Moscow’s subsequent emplacement of S-300 surface-to-air missile systems and Sukhoi-30 fighter aircraft in Syria, the War of the Terrorist Groups – Iran’s Hezbollah versus the Saudi-backed Free Syria Army versus the al Qaeda affiliate, Jabat al-Nusra, versus Islamic State – Israel’s cautious (for now) yet belligerent attitude towards Iran and Russia’s attempts to keep al-Assad in power (if only to retain its own presence in the eastern Mediterranean and to sell more nuclear reactors, fighter aircraft and other weapons systems to Iran), while simultaneously trying to sell armaments to the Saudis (see here and here, for example). Any attempt by Riyadh to introduce more players into this situation could only prove disastrous for all concerned, not least for itself.
Russia’s airstrikes against the rebels who are fighting Syrian troops could potentially draw Saudi Arabia directly into the Syrian conflict once again and this time directly against Russian forces. Russia has enjoyed considerable strategic success in Syria. The 4,660-odd air strikes carried out by the United States between August 2014 and December 2015 to aid the moderate rebels fighting against al-Assad’s forces have been of little, if any, strategic consequence. The Russian sorties against the rebels, on the other hand, have turned the balance of the war in the favour of government troops. Not content with that, however, Putin has sought to work with Syrian military leaders to identify rebel leaders who could be persuaded to enter into an agreement of some kind with al-Assad. This is a sound move, considering that most of them were trained by Moscow prior to the civil war. It has been reported that several rebel leaders, including Syrian National Council’s current president, Khaled al-Khoja, are currently in discussions with Assad and Moscow to arrange a ceasefire between them. This has the potential to cause other rebel leaders to defect to al-Assad and Moscow, leaving the Saudi-backed rebels weakened.
Worse yet, Putin is actively working towards also bringing the Kurds into Moscow’s camp. A measure of his success may be gauged from the fact that two hundred Russian military advisers were deployed to the Kurdish town of Qamishli, which is situated close to the Turkish border and has a military airport. This airport could give Russia the ability to strike at IS fighters in north-eastern Syria and simultaneously protect its new Kurdish friends from Turkish attacks. Apart from giving Turkish President Erdoğan sufficient reason to reconsider his strategy of carrying out air strikes against the Kurdish fighters, the fact that Riyadh only recently deployed fighter aircraft to Turkey to carry out air strikes against IS could see them enter into air space that Russia virtually controls. Should Turkey carry out further strikes against the Kurds, assuming that the latter enter into a formal agreement with Russia, Moscow could feel obliged to strike back at Turkish aircraft. If that were to happen, and leaving aside the risk of a NATO-member invoking Article Five of that organisation’s founding treaty, Erdoğan could feel pressured into asking the Saudis to use their fighter aircraft in Turkey to assist in those strikes or in strikes against IS in Syria. In either case, those fighter aircraft will need to traverse Syrian air space and could potentially spark a direct conflict between Riyadh and Moscow.
Saudi Arabia, however, needs to demonstrate that it has the capability and willingness to enter the Syrian conflict, even if only for the sake of being seen to be doing something other than fighting using subterfuge or as a junior partner in a Western coalition fighting fellow Muslims. Being seen to be fighting in Syria could help to overcome the negativity associated with its previous, short-lived participation in the US-led coalition fighting in Syria when, after carrying out a few bombing raids against Islamic State targets in 2014, its fighter aircraft were withdrawn in order to prosecute Riyadh’s war against the Houthi separatists in Yemen. Worse, it was conjectured that Saudi Arabia did not have the political will to fight terrorism given its support for terrorist organisations. Adding to that perception, Riyadh appeared to be obsessed with destroying the Houthi insurgency in Yemen, even if that meant withdrawing its fighter aircraft from Syria. Riyadh does not, moreover, appear to be ready to reduce, let alone cease, its prosecution of that conflict. Apart from leading to speculation in the region about its political will to prosecute a war in Syria, withdrawing its fighters from Syria did not please its US and European coalition partners.
A previous Saudi attempt to form a coalition, furthermore, led to premature announcements, only to see that attempt fail when Pakistan stated bluntly that it had no knowledge of any such coalition and had not been asked to join. Last December, Pakistani Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry remarked that he was surprised to hear that Saudi Arabia had declared his country to be a member of the 34-country “anti-terrorism” alliance. The reasons for Pakistan’s reluctance to take part in that coalition are fairly easy to fathom. Islamabad had just hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping on a state visit during which he announced a loan of US$46 billion to develop Pakistan’s energy infrastructure, including a gas pipeline that originated in Iran, passed through Pakistan and terminated in China’s western region. Beijing also offered Islamabad very soft terms for the purchase of Chinese submarines. Pakistan’s reluctance to upset China by joining a Saudi coalition against Iran and its forces in Syria is, therefore, understandable. Very little has changed since then, however, to prompt Pakistan to join a Saudi coalition against Iran in Syria today. Thus, while Pakistan may send troops to Saudi Arabia (or has allowed its troops who were already there) to take part in a military exercise, it is difficult to see it taking part in a conflict in which its troops would be fighting Iranian troops or Iran-backed fighters.
Similarly, while it is easy to see Kuwait and Bahrain acquiescing to Saudi requests, it is more difficult to see Qatar doing so, given their spat over the al-Thani family’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that is banned by Riyadh and Cairo. On the other hand, Qatar might feel that if the Saudis are determined this time around to actually take the fight to Islamic State in Syria and given the potential competition that it faces from Cairo after vast gas deposits were discovered recently off the Egyptian coast, it would be in its best interests to be seen to be part of that coalition.
Likewise, Malaysia. This is the first time that Kuala Lumpur has sent troops to Saudi Arabia to take part in the “Thunder of the North” military exercise, even though the exercise has been conducted for the last fifteen years. This has led some observers to conclude that, on the face of it, Malaysia has a growing interest in the events of the Middle East and has found it necessary now to intervene to achieve its goals in that region. There is some evidence to support this view. When Saudi Arabia announced the 34-country alliance against Islamic State in December 2014, Malaysia was one of the allies in that coalition. Malaysian defence officials later announced that their country’s participation was limited to the sharing of intelligence, no doubt brought about by Kuala Lumpur’s fear of its nationals who are currently fighting alongside Islamic State returning home radicalised and potentially capable of carrying out Islamic State’s agenda there (see, for instance, here and here). Malaysia will, no doubt, wish to have any intelligence it could obtain by allying itself with other actors in the Middle East who are aligned against Islamic State.
That alliance aside, Malaysia last year also sent soldiers and equipment to Riyadh, its staging post, when it evacuated its nationals and those of some neighbouring states from Yemen. It was assisted in that task by Saudi Arabia and some Arab aid organisations. Its participation in the military exercise this year could, therefore, be its way of thanking Riyadh for its assistance previously. This idea gains some currency when the statement by the Malaysian Defence Minister on 16 February is taken into account. Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, responding to questions on Malaysia’s involvement in the military exercises, announced that its participation had ‘no link whatsoever with the military campaign in Yemen’ and that ‘While I have been consistent in stating that Malaysia is supportive of efforts to curb militancy, our Armed Forces have never taken part in any military operation in Yemen’. According to the minister, this was another opportunity to refine his country’s humanitarian assistance and disaster relief procedures and its general ability to remove its nationals from war zones.
If true, this stance would indicate that Malaysia is taking part in the military exercise only for the sake of appearances – possibly in deference to Saudi requests after the assistance Riyadh extended to Kuala Lumpur previously – and to use the occasion to collect further intelligence on the activities of its nationals who support Islamic State. The permanent interests to which international relations theory refers appear to have easily countered the friendships and animosities of this coalition which, it would appear, is already fractured and is far from being an ideal one.
Arguably the greatest danger in sending Saudi troops to fight Islamic State is the risk to the House of Saud. The Al Sakina campaign to deter extremist ideology in Saudi Arabia conducted a poll in 2014 to gauge the attitudes of the Saudi population towards Islamic State. It allegedly found that 92 per cent of the Saudi population favoured the terrorist group’s ideology. (No details of sample questions, margin for error or sample size has been made available.) Even if that figure were halved and then halved again, however, it would still show that a significant proportion of the Saudi populace would be reluctant to fight Islamic State, even if it does not actually sympathise with its ideology. Given that the House of Saud virtually buys the support of its subjects, it would not take much for the IS sympathisers in Saudi society to turn against the royal family. The House of Saud needs to take this into careful consideration in determining if it ought to enter the Syrian conflict directly. On the other hand, it could be that by giving the impression that it is entering the Syrian conflict and knowing that the US will recognise the inherent dangers of this move, Saudi Arabia hopes that the US will play a more active and greatly enhanced role in the war. This will reduce the pressure on Riyadh to send ground troops to Syria.
Given these factors, it makes sense for the Saudis to ensure that its American and European coalition partners continue to battle Islamic State fighters in Syria. It becomes clear, given this reasoning, why Saudi Arabia withdrew its fighter aircraft from Syria and used them instead to prosecute its war against the Houthi insurgents in Yemen. It also becomes clear why Riyadh would prefer to fight against Islamic State, if need be, down to the last American soldier.