Saudi Arabia’s offer to send ground troops to Syria, which is actually an offer diametrically opposite to the $10bn the international community has offered to provide ‘relief’ to the people of Syria, is likely to result in escalation of the conflict rather than its ‘peaceful’ resolution. Any act of direct intervention without the authorization of Syria’s incumbent Government would not only complicate the already precarious situation, but also greatly transform the Syrian ‘civil war’ into a much wider regional conflagration. In fact, any moves to send ground troops into Syria by the Saudis, Turks or others to (supposedly) fight Islamic State (IS), without the willingness of the government in Damascus, will be a recipe for disaster. And coordination between Damascus, Riyadh and Ankara is presently highly unlikely, considering the latter have no love lost for Bashar al-Assad.
The Saudi announcement comes at a time when prospects for peace have faded with the collapse of the Geneva talks and the conflict has intensified with regime forces attempting to encircle Aleppo backed by heavy Russian air strikes. Therefore, any Saudi troops going into Syria will find themselves at the centre of a highly combustible situation. Although the apparent reason for their presence would be to fight IS, they might actually find themselves clashing with Iranian forces and Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah fighters.
While Saudi Arabia and Turkey seem more than willing to get directly engaged in Syria against IS, their actual target is, as it has always been, Iran. The collapse of Geneva talks has only provided the House of Saud and the ‘House of Erdogan’ with a supposedly ‘legitimate’ excuse to send troops to Syria to face off Iran—a country they have been unable to defeat at the diplomatic level during the last few years . Therefore, as Iran gets ready to re-establish its economic power after its President made a hugely successful tour of Europe, Saudi Arabia and Turkey seem to be preparing the plan to deliberately escalate the conflict in Syria as a means to put Iran into an uneasy geo-strategic position and thereby force it to re-direct its resources to fighting the war it cannot virtually afford to go astray; for, survival of Syria as an ally of Iran in the Middle East is crucial for Iran’s standing as a regional power. Loss of Syria would weaken Iran’s position in Lebanon and thereby further compromise its position vis-à-vis Israel as well as its “Sunni” rivals.
Needless to say, Iran’s return to international community does undermine Saudi Arabia’s aspirations for regional supremacy. That said, it is not unthinkable that the Saudi Arabia’s immediate decision to break off relations with Iran and prod their Arab and African allies into taking similar action was driven by their apprehension towards the economic and political re-emergence of Iran following the enforcement of the nuke-deal.
While Turkey may not feel so ‘alarmed’ at Iran’s re-emergence after years of isolation, it certainly is at odds with Tehran due to the latter’s full support for Assad and its own inability to carve Syria into different “zones” to shield itself against the prospects of a stronger and united Kurdish nation and its demand for an independent and sovereign Kurdistan.
This freeze between Iran and Turkey does benefit the House of Saud and its other regional “Sunni” allies; for, it allows them to use Turkish territory to directly and indirectly intervene in Syria and play their dirty geo-political games. On the other hand, were Saudi Arabia and its allies currently fighting in Yemen as “Arab coalition” to send ground troops to Syria, Turkey may find the best opportunity in decades to not only to “finish off” the Kurdish question for ever but also establish a “buffer zone” to insulate itself against any potential threat of spill over.
Saudi Arabia does share Turkey’s concerns and, as was evident during Erdogan’s third consecutive visit of Saudi Arabia in 2015 only, the establishment of Saudia-Turk strategic cooperation council in this behalf does strongly signify the level of strategic co-operation the two “Sunni” states are aiming at achieving in their bid to oust Syria’s elected leadership. The anti-Syria nature of this strategic cooperation council is evident from the many statements Erdogan issued during and after his last visit of Saudi Arabia. In one of these statements, he went to the extent of accusing Assad of “mercilessly” killing thousnads of people in cold blood. To quote him further, “You cannot go anywhere by supporting a regime that has mercilessly killed 400,000 innocent people with conventional and chemical weapons.”
It is worth mentioning that Relations between Riyadh and Ankara had actually deteriorated under previous Saudi leader King Abdullah, who had spoken out against Turkey’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood group in Egypt. However, ties have improved since King Salman acceded to the throne in January 2015, as the new Saudi ruler has been seeking Sunni allies to counter the monarchy’s main geopolitical rival, Iran.
The illusion of an anti-IS Saudi-Turk military intervention in Syria is, therefore, only a trick that they are using for deceiving the world generally and their public specifically into believing the ‘righteousness’ of the cause they are fighting for. On the contrary, it is an open secret that both Turkey and Saudi Arabia have never minced their opposition to Assad’s rule in Syria. Therefore, if a direct military intervention ever takes place, it will certainly be directed against Assad’s forces than IS or any other Gulf-supported terrorist outfit.
On the other hand, with Riyadh and Ankara having military presence in Syria, they may find themselves in an extremely convenient position to extend support to the forces currently fighting Syrian Army and struggling against Russian air strikes. The on-going fighting in and around Aleppo has only accentuated the need for Riyadh and Ankara to “do something” for the struggling proxy troops. Therefore, the officially and un-officially sponsored popular contention that Saudi Arabia and Turkey are aiming at sending ground troops to Syria out of the fear of Islamic State hitting them is merely an illusion that has no practical substance.
For Saudi Arabia, sending troops matters because it would enable, arguably though, it to engage Iran for a longer period of time. For Turkey, the same holds true. However, Turkey’s over-enthusiasm for the a ground invasion stems from the fact that it sees in it an opportunity to revamp its literally lost position vis-à-vis Russia in Syria. While the actual decision to send ground troops does seem to be bold and somewhat unlikely to take place, the possibility of sending limited number of troops covertly for “train and equip” missions cannot be set aside. Either way, such a scenario would only escalate the conflict; and this is what the House of Saud and the ‘House of Erdogan’ seem to be bent upon achieving out of the current chaos.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.