Why the US is skeptical of Saudi involvement in Syria

US intelligence officials have expressed doubts about the kingdom's capability.

Virginia Mayo/AP
Saudi Arabia's Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman, front center, looks toward his delegation during a Counter-ISIL Coalition Ministerial meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Thursday. Defense Secretary Ash Carter expects Thursday’s three-hour gathering of defense ministers from more than two dozen countries to endorse a new U.S. plan for prosecuting the war. The ministers were expected to issue a joint statement at the conclusion of their meeting at NATO headquarters

Amid an international campaign to fight Islamic State, also referred to as ISIS, Saudi Arabia this week announced its willingness to commit ground troops to the fight.

But the US Congress is skeptical of the Saudis' commitment to fight the Islamic State, largely because the kingdom’s pledge is contingent on the United States increasing its own commitment to send more Special Forces troops into Syria, according to US officials.

“I don’t know why the US has to make the first move on the chessboard,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D) of Virginia, according to the Washington Post. “Whose region is this? And who has the principal responsibility with it? We want to be partners with nations in the region tackling their own terrorist threat, but the notion they will be producing only if we play the leadership role – it kind of makes me question, how did that get to be?”

Some US intelligence officials had expressed their doubts following Saudi Arabia's announcement, questioning their capability.

“I do not assess that the Saudi ground forces would have ... the capacity to take this fight on,” Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate Armed Services Committee, according to the Hill. “Whether they have the capacity to do both Yemen and something in Iraq-Syria is questionable for me."

“Saudi forces are bogged down in Yemen in a costly campaign against the Houthis that Riyadh is not prepared to abandon,” writes Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, in a Wall Street Journal piece. “It is doubtful that the kingdom would deploy troops to Syria unless they were part of a broader Gulf or US effort.”

Mr. Miller tells the Christian Science Monitor via email, “the Saudis have long been more concerned about removing Iranian ally [Syrian President] Bashar Assad from power in Syria than they have been about directly fighting ISIS. Saudi leaders would be bitterly criticized at home if they deployed forces and were not seen as taking on the Assad regime, which has been viewed by Saudis and other Sunni Muslims as killing innocent Sunnis.”

Yet other analysts note that it may be in Saudi Arabia’s interests to commit its troops in Syria. Saudi Arabia has been a member of the US-led coalition that has been launching airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria since September 2014, but the Kingdom has limited its involvement to arming and supplying certain rebel groups in Syria.

But with the Syrian city of Aleppo now under siege from pro-government forces backed by Russia, the US is grappling to find a good strategy, and as the Washington Post reported, “Saudi Arabia’s commitment is potentially pivotal in securing the help of other nations.”

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