It was a startling announcement that prompted a flurry of urgent headlines and seemed to answer the prayers of the Obama administration and presidential candidates alike: Saudi Arabia said it would be willing to send ground troops into Syria to combat the Islamic State.
“That kind of news is very welcome,” said U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. Added White House spokesman Josh Earnest: “We certainly welcome the announcement from our partners in Saudi Arabia that they would be prepared to ramp up their commitment militarily to this effort.”
The Saudi statement, made February 4 by its Defense Ministry spokesman, also seemed tailored to meet the strategy formulations of Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in regard to countering the Islamic militants, who have established a “caliphate” over large swaths of Iraq and Syria.
Sanders has long complained that “wealthy and powerful Muslim nations in the region can no longer sit on the sidelines and expect the United States to do their work for them.” In a major speech last November, he said the United States should create “an organization like NATO” to confront not just ISIS, but “the rise of violent extremism and…the root causes underlying [its] brutal acts.” Likewise, Clinton said victory over ISIS required Arab states and Turkey to “step up” their contributions in the fight.
But the Saudi proposal came with a hitch as big as a battleship anchor: You go first. The kingdom said its troops would “participate with ground troops with the U.S.-led coalition.”
“Thousands of special forces could be deployed, probably in coordination with Turkey,” sources told The Guardian newspaper in London.
That’s not going to happen, if by “ground troops” the Saudis meant U.S. combat brigades. Not only President Barack Obama and the Democratic contenders, but leading Republican candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have ruled out putting U.S. combat units in Syria (but not Iraq). Republican Marco Rubio has said he’d be open to U.S. troops in Syria, but only as part of a multinational coalition. Only Jeb Bush has declared that the United States “will need to increase our presence on the ground" in Syria, but his proposal last fall came with several caveats, such as working in a concert with local Arab regimes and the Turks. They all back strengthening U.S. special operations forces in the region, however.
The Saudi proposal for ground troops, in short, is a non-starter from the standpoint of U.S. domestic politics. But longtime observers of the regime point out several other incongruities in its statement.
The Saudis don’t really have an expeditionary army tailored for extended combat in Syria. Even its brutal, faltering campaign to defeat Iran-backed rebels in Yemen has been largely limited to airstrikes. Its Royal Saudi Land Force, with an estimated strength of 175,000 troops, is designed to maintain order inside the kingdom, experts say.
“The Saudi military is indeed heavily committed in Yemen, and its forces are not configured to allow for an intervention on the ground in Syria,” says a former senior U.S. diplomat in Saudi Arabia, who asked for anonymity because he now represents a major industry in the region.
Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East adviser to both Republican and Democratic secretaries of state for more than two decades, predicts that a large-scale, Saudi-led Arab intervention could lead to a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.
“I shudder to think about how some hastily assembled, ill-trained, agenda-driven, incompetent Arab expeditionary force would perform,” he tells Newsweek. “And the last thing you’d want to see is ISIS victorious against Sunnis backed by the West.” Just imagine, he added, “a lot of Saudi POWs in ISIS cages.” Last February, Islamic State executioners locked a downed Jordanian pilot in an open-air cage and burned him alive.
Even if the Saudis did mobilize an interventionist force for Syria, Miller and many other observers point out, the monarchy’s strategy is out of sync with the goals of Washington and its European allies: Its main effort is to bring down the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, which is backed by Riyadh’s arch-rival Iran. To that end, it has mainly been backing the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front, among other extremist Syrian rebel groups, in attacks against the regime, not ISIS.
“The fact is the Arab states and Turkey should support the Syrian opposition against ISIS on the ground [but] they don’t,” says Miller, vice-president for new initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
“The Saudis have been very consistent in saying that it is the brutality of the Assad regime that has enabled ISIS to thrive in Syria,” agrees Fahad Nazer, a former political analyst at the Saudi embassy in Washington. ”Given that the U.S. has shown no interest in attacking Assad’s forces, it would be difficult to envision a scenario where Saudi troops would target ISIS exclusively,” he tells Newsweek.
All this talk about what the Saudis would, could or should do may be moot, however. Russian-backed advances last week threatened to checkmate the 4-year-old insurgency.
“The Russian-backed assault on Aleppo is proceeding swiftly,” notes Jon B. Alterman, senior vice president and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an influential Washington think tank. The fall of Aleppo, capital of Syria’s most populous province, would follow regime advances on Latakia, in the north, and Dara’a, in the south.
“By time the troops and resources and alliance structure are put together to make such an operation effective on the ground,” Alterman tells Newsweek, “conditions are likely to be profoundly different.”