Alex Rowell

Will Saudi walk its Syria intervention talk?

Many question Saudi ground troops proposal, but sources in the Kingdom insist “it’s serious”

Saudi Interior ministry

With Russian airstrikes enabling militias loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, including Lebanese Hezbollah, to make unprecedented gains around the perimeter of Aleppo, threatening to deliver what some rebels say would be a death blow to the armed opposition, some of the key states backing those rebels are declaring a newfound readiness to take serious escalatory measures of their own.

On Monday, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said the Kingdom was considering sending a Saudi “ground force contingent, or a special forces contingent” into Syria. While Jubeir stressed the troops would operate under the aegis of the international US-led coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS), a Saudi source told NOW the aim would be as much about combating pro-regime forces as confronting the caliphate’s jihadists. While many analysts, along with Iranian and Syrian regime officials, dismiss the entire notion as wildly unrealistic, some Western diplomats reportedly cited the unpredictable personality of Saudi Defense Minister Muhammad bin Salman – architect of the Kingdom’s ongoing war in Yemen – as reason to think it may well happen (“With Mohammed bin Salman, you just don’t know,” one told the Financial Times). Well-connected observers inside Saudi insist the announcement is no bluff.

“It is serious […] it is the beginning of a Saudi intervention in Syria to change the balance, to bring balance back,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi journalist and former advisor to then-ambassador Prince Turki al-Faisal. “The Russians are trying to dictate their solution in Syria by force, so Saudi Arabia feels it should not allow them to do so.”

While no specifics have been made public, with Jubeir saying Wednesday it would not be “appropriate to circulate details at the present moment,” Khashoggi told NOW he envisaged Saudi, along with certain Gulf partners (the UAE and Bahrain have both offered to participate), deploying in tandem with the US as well as Turkey, with whom the Kingdom is reportedly planning impending joint military exercises.

“Saudi Arabia has already secured the backing of Turkey,” wrote Khashoggi on Tuesday, adding a joint Saudi-Turkish intervention would offer Ankara “the opportunity to [...] implement the buffer zone that it [has] long called for.”

“Now […] Saudi officials – led by Defense Minister Mohamed bin Salman – will be discussing the complex matter of arranging air cover with the US-led coalition.” Asked Tuesday whether the US would hypothetically accept Saudi’s proposed intervention, Secretary of State John Kerry replied, “sure.”

In terms of Saudi’s overall objective, Khashoggi told NOW he envisaged Riyadh coming to an arrangement with Russia to informally divide the broadly regime-controlled west of Syria from the opposition-held territory further inland. The latter would be “under the protection of Saudi Arabia and its allies,” while the former would be secured by Russia, Iran, and allied militants, with an agreement that neither side would attack the other. Though Russia has shown little disinclination to blitz Saudi-backed (and Turkey- and US-backed) rebels with airstrikes in recent months, some Western diplomats believe Moscow would be reluctant to hit actual Saudi soldiers, for fear of upsetting binational commercial relations.

This informal divide could “cool the Syrian situation for a few months or years,” Khashoggi argued to NOW, after which “the Syrian people in both Syrias would talk to each other for a reunification.” The “issue of Bashar al-Assad” would be left “for the future,” but “at least the killing machine and terrorism would be stopped. I’m anticipating a scenario like that.”

Nonetheless, there are certainly a number of reasons to think even a limited Saudi ground intervention far-fetched. For one, as much as Turkey may share Saudi’s hostility to Damascus (President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused Assad just Wednesday of “genocide”), Turkish media reports this week suggested the army would not act militarily without UN Security Council approval.

For another, there are questions about the effectiveness of the Saudi military, which has relatively little to show for its ten-month-long campaign in Yemen against Houthi militants of far less sophistication than certain pro-Assad factions such as Hezbollah.

And then there is the announcement Friday of a Syrian “cessation of hostilities” agreement reached between Russia and the Unites States that would see Moscow reduce its airstrikes by 19 February and facilitate humanitarian relief to besieged areas. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the agreement marked a “qualitative” change in Washington’s Syria policy, bringing it closer in line with Moscow’s. Whether true or not, analysts told NOW the agreement would make the US ill-inclined to agree to any steps that could antagonize Russia in the near future.

“The [US-led international] coalition is [now] in close coordination with the Russians regarding their sorties over Syrian territory,” said Fidaa Itani, a Lebanese journalist who has traveled extensively throughout Syria since the war began. “The coalition doesn’t want to interfere in Syria [apart from] pounding ISIS positions.”

“And,” Itani added, “if the [hypothetical] Saudi intervention were linked to the international coalition that coordinates with Russia in turn,” it would be difficult to see how it could contradict Moscow’s (and, by extension, Damascus’) interests in any meaningful way.

Khashoggi himself told NOW Saudi intervention “could be averted if the Americans can get the Russians to stop bombing and go back to Geneva,” and indeed it may be that Riyadh’s muscular talk of intervention is ultimately intended just as a means of pressuring to that end.

Yet, if the ceasefire falls through, or fails to materialize in the first place, Khashoggi said he believes we may see Saudi intervention sooner rather than later.

“If the Russians continue in their insistence that they want to have it all, then the Saudis, if they want to deliver results on the ground, will have to intervene as soon as possible.”

“Because if we delay it one more month and the Russians continue with their bombardment, and advance into Aleppo, there will be a human catastrophe in northern Syria.”

Amin Nasr contributed reporting.


Saudi Interior ministry's Special Forces perform before Interior minister and Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdel Aziz (unseen) during a special parade on the eve of Hajj season in Mecca City, on November 01, 2011. (AFP /Fayez Nureldine)

“It is serious […] it is the beginning of a Saudi intervention in Syria to change the balance, to bring balance back”

  • manjarola

    The lives of both the Lebanese and the Palestinians are also subject to the ambitions of Iran, which fills the coffers of groups such as Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad.

    February 14, 2016

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    But the lives of the Palestinians are subjected every day to the state-sponsored terrorism and ambitions of the fake country of Israel, whose coffers and arsenals are filled by the hard-earned money of tax-paying dumb American citizens held hostage by the ZioNazi lobby in the US: Stealing land, demolishing homes, de-arabizing Jerusalem, extrajudicial killings....We all know where this is headed, and these are the ambitions of Israel over historic and present-day Palestine.

    February 15, 2016

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Merely speaking of a Saudi ground intervention in Syria is a sign of two important things: 1- The Saudis are finally taking their own independent steps to live up to their "Arab and Islamic greatness", instead of hiding under the skirt of Mommy America or buying their dignity with oil money, and 2- This is yet further evidence of the far-sighted policies of President Obama that now force deadbeats like Saudi Arabia to take responsibility for their own existence. This is genuine, radical, from the bottom up, "in-the-marrow" nation building, unlike the Republican (Bush or Reagan) version of dispatching 300,000 soldiers, greedy corporations, and their export of democracy. I hope to live long enough to see how these Saudi soldiers, having fought in Yemen and Syria and elsewhere perhaps, would return home and ignite a revolution within Saudi society. When alone in facing death, the sedative effect of oil, money, and unearned wealth will dissipate as quickly as it appeared. The Saudis may hate Obama these days because he did not send US soldiers die in their stead, but they will in the due course of history thank him for having thrown them in the sharks tank to fend for themselves and discover who they really are and make the necessary adjustments.

    February 14, 2016

  • Cripes

    It is difficult to envisage Saudi, UAE or Turkey intervening without being part of a wider coalition, with a green light from the USA and the promise of US air cover if things got sticky which, under the current prudent-or-timid, take your pick, POTUS, are all non-starters․ The US is clearly determined to keep well away from the civil war in western Syria, even if it means handing it to Russia and Assad on a plate․ Instead, they are off again with the crowd-pleasing idea of training miscellaneous Arabs to do the fighting in eastern Syria against ISIS, which sounds like it's years away and pretty optimistic, in light of their last abortive attempt with Division 101․ Both Saudi and the UAE have been coralled into sending trainers to supplement this training a new army effort, rather than sending in ground forces on their own, so it is likely that Putin and Assad can sleep easily at nights without fear of invasion․

    February 12, 2016

  • Faizal

    Turkish Chief of TAF , General Hulusi Akar must be replaced with another person who would do his job .

    February 12, 2016