After announcing its willingness to deploy ground forces in Syria last week, Saudi Arabia’s officials now appear to be more hesitant about their initial plans.
Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, said on Sunday that the decision whether to have a ground component on the ground is up to the US-led coalition.
“We said that if the US-led coalition is going to send ground troops into Syria, we are prepared to send special forces, so now we are waiting to see what the plan looks like,” Jubeir said in an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour. “But we have said yes, we’re prepared to provide special forces as part of the ground operations in Syria.”
The Kingdom pledged to send troops last week, amid an international campaign to fight the Islamic State.
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said he welcomed the move, calling on other countries to take part in the coalition that would accelerate efforts in fighting the jihadist group, but other US officials questioned Saudi Arabia's commitment, pointing to the Kingdom’s involvement in Yemen, and asking whether it would have the capability to engage in yet another conflict.
“I do not assess that the Saudi ground forces would have the capacity to take this fight on,” Marine Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency said, according to the Washington Post. “I think the idea is, how do you get more US skin in the game?”
With more at stake, as the Syrian city of Aleppo continues to be under siege from pro-Assad forces, Saudi Arabia’s ambivalent plan raises a question; are there other underlying factors behind the Kingdom’s uncertainty?
Analysts have long expressed suspicions about Saudi Arabia’s intentions in Syria, largely because neither Saudi Arabia nor Turkey makes a secret of their desire to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power, the Christian Science Monitor reported.
“Saudi intervention in Syria would, in contrast to Yemen, which the kingdom sees as a proxy war, bring Saudi troops in closer proximity to Russian forces and Iran's Revolutionary Guard,” writes James M. Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, in the Huffington Post. “Russian and Iranian attacks on Saudi-backed rebels would inevitably have to elicit a Saudi response.”
“The Saudi gamble ironically fits neatly with the strategy of the Russian and Iranian-backed regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Neither Saudi Arabia nor Syria and its backers want real negotiations that could end Syria's five-year old, brutal civil war until the lay of the battlefield definitively enhances their respective negotiating position.”
While Saudi Arabia has been a member of the US-led coalition that has been launching airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria since September 2014, the Kingdom has limited its involvement to arming and supplying certain rebel groups in Syria.
“The Saudis won't send significant numbers – they already stretched with an uphill and losing struggle in Yemen – and they won't want to be on the front lines, as Saudi troops in Syria would be fighting and killing other Sunnis (and indeed other Saudi Sunnis). That would be unprecedented, and enormously unpopular,” political scientist Ian Bremmer told Business Insider.