On Feb. 4, the spokesman for the Saudi military, Brig. Gen. Ahmed al Asiri, made a bold announcement. The Gulf kingdom, he said, would commit troops to a ground operation against ISIS if the United States asked it to and if the coalition agreed to it. Asiri made the statement sitting in front of the flags of all six Gulf Cooperation Council member states, implying that Saudi Arabia could take up the mantle of leading a grand Arab coalition to fight in Syria.
Not two weeks later, it seems Riyadh is keeping good on its word. According to the Turkish foreign minister, Saudi troops and fighter jets have already arrived at Turkey’s Incirlik airbase and are preparing for operations in Syria. Also, Saudi sources speaking to Arabic media claim that the kingdom will run training exercises with its own forces alongside troops from Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, and other countries in preparation for the fight against ISIS, the so-called Islamic State.
Washington has repeatedly called on its partners in the region to step up their efforts in the fight against ISIS. Having nominally reached a nationwide ceasefire that, if implemented (a big if), would allow the various opposed forces in Syria to focus on ISIS rather than each other, a Saudi troop commitment would seem to be a welcome development.
Good news? Not really. Riyadh’s offer of support is most likely a bluff, since Saudi Arabia already is stretched thin on both military and economic fronts. And on the off chance that this is a serious offer—if Saudi Arabia and its partners actually intend to send troops to Syria—it will be an incredibly risky move that will prolong the civil war.
Saudi Arabia, along with some of the other Gulf countries, initially took part in the U.S.-led coalition of airstrikes against ISIS that started back in September 2014. Its efforts, however, dwindled—especially after it began its own military campaign against the Houthis in Yemen.
The Saudis are still active in Syria, but ISIS is by no means their priority; they are far more focused on Iran. To this end, Riyadh, in cooperation with Turkey, has supported the most effective (and radical) forces fighting the Iranian-backed Assad regime.
The Saudi-backed groups have included the Army of Conquest umbrella group of which Syria’s al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra, is a dominant member. Even if the recently agreed upon ceasefire is implemented, it seems Saudi Arabia will not stop supporting the Army of Conquest—despite the fact that its radical members were not part of the negotiations and will not likely respect the truce.
Saudi Arabia is not offering its troops to fight ISIS because it has reassessed its priorities. Even after signing the ceasefire, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir has said that Saudi Arabia would support removing Assad by force rather than diplomacy.
Instead, by offering to contribute troops, Riyadh and its partners hope to make it more palatable for Washington to deepen its own involvement in Syria. If the ceasefire breaks down with a significant U.S. presence in the country, Saudi Arabia hopes the United States would be dragged into the fight against Bashar al-Assad and even directly against Iranian troops.
Saudi Arabia would be more than happy to see the United States push Iran out of Syria, and perhaps more important, it would welcome such an entanglement ruining the chances for improved U.S.-Iranian relations.
Beyond dragging the United States into its conflict with Iran, Saudi Arabia hopes to gain better international standing, improving its somewhat battered reputation.
By simply offering to fight ISIS directly—even if they never actually send troops—the Saudis can claim they are trying to be part of the solution. This, they hope, will overshadow the fact that they are indeed part of the problem, pouring gasoline on Syria’s fire by sending weapons and money to radical groups.
Saudi Arabia is badly bogged down, far from the Syrian front, in Yemen. Despite making some progress against the Houthis, the Saudis have no exit strategy to speak of, have been unable to convince their longtime military ally Pakistan to contribute troops (surely a blow to King Salman’s ego), and are spending a fortune on the war.
In March 2015, Reuters reported that Riyadh’s air campaign in Yemen was costing up to $175 million a month. Now that the Saudis are engaged on the ground, the cost is likely much higher. A year ago, this might have seemed easily affordable for the oil-rich monarchy. Maybe it still is, but now, after having driven the price of crude to below $30 per barrel in an effort, not least, to hurt Iran, Saudi Arabia is in a much worse position and is burning through its cash reserves at a dangerous pace.
The economic situation is so bad that Saudi Arabia is considering taking its oil giant, Saudi Aramco, public. While it would only have to sell a small percentage of its shares to stave off the cash crisis, putting even part of Aramco into outside investors’ hands would make it more difficult for the Saudi family to play games with oil prices to pursue political goals—something they have done since they acquired full control of the company in 1980.
Beyond this, if the Saudis took Aramco public, they would have to make the organization far more transparent—likely exposing a great deal of corruption and implicating the royal family. For this, Saudi Arabia will avoid selling Aramco shares if possible, and as such, it likely won’t undertake an expensive campaign in Syria.
But, still, what if it does?
If Riyadh sends forces to Syria to fight in coordination with U.S. Special Forces that are already in country, it may very well conduct operations against ISIS. This symbolic effort would legitimize its presence in Washington’s eyes. However, Saudi Arabia’s main purpose inside Syria will, of course, be providing even greater support to its radical allies in the opposition.
After all, it is no coincidence that Saudi Arabia is offering to send troops now, after the rebels have lost significant ground against the regime in Aleppo. If the recent territorial losses are locked in place with a ceasefire, it will be much more difficult for the opposition groups to get supplies and weapons from Turkey, something they have heavily relied on to maintain their stronghold in the northwest.
While the United States might hope a Saudi troop presence in opposition-held areas would prevent Riyadh’s proxy forces from violating the ceasefire, it is more likely Saudi Arabia will use the ceasefire to resupply and build up these groups.
Saudi Arabia’s allies—especially those in the Army of Conquest in the northwest—arguably are more dangerous than ISIS in the long run. They are more able to blend in and rebrand themselves as “moderate” rebels, and as such they have more staying power than the highly visible Islamic State in its “caliphate.” With a Saudi military presence in the country, they will have a steady stream of weapons they will be able to stockpile. These Salafists will be a permanent problem well after this war ends.
If the Saudis operate from the Kurdish-controlled territory as U.S. forces do, they will risk confrontations with the Kurds who will certainly reject their presence—especially since the Saudis are coordinating military efforts with Turkey.
Would they instead operate from opposition-held territory in the northwest or the southwest? It seems they are planning to, given their troop buildup in Turkey. If they do this, they would be right in the line of fire of Russian airstrikes and likely face direct combat with Iranian troops. Their presence in the country will not be a solution to the conflict; it could drastically escalate it.
Assuming they are not bluffing, the Saudis have put their next move in the hands of the United States by saying that sending their troops is dependent on U.S. approval—indeed, Brig. Gen. Asiri reiterated this on Feb. 11.
The United States must be careful when deciding whether to accept Saudi Arabia’s offer. Washington has far different objectives and goals than Riyadh does, and if it is not careful, the Saudis could pull it into fighting their battle with Iran for them. This would be extremely costly for the United States and would by no means end the war any sooner. Instead, it could make the conflict far more complicated and far more difficult to resolve.