The decision is “final”. Saudi Arabia has committed to sending troops into Syria’s civil war. This, according to Saudi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Ahmed Al-Assiri. This development brings with it more questions than answers. So below, I will attempt to answer them.
The Syrian Arab Army and allied militias like Hezbollah have made stunning gains in the past month. Backed by Russian airpower, they have cut the rebel supply line to the key city of Aleppo. If Aleppo were to fall it would be a major blow to the so-called “moderate” rebel factions fighting in the Syrian Civil War.
The Saudi Kingdom has been one of a number of states to sponsor the rebels, including Turkey, Qatar, UAE and the United States. For years these rebels have been given supplies, weapons and political backing from these countries in the hope that they would overthrow Assad and bring a government more friendly to Sunni and western interests. If they lose, Saudi loses.
Why are they backing them?
One paradigm through which the Syrian Civil war is often seen is of a proxy war between Saudi Arabia, their Sunni gulf allies and Iran and their Shia proxies like Hezbollah and the Assad Regime. These two forces are the region’s greatest powers and have been competing for dominance since the Iranian Revolution. This is a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. At stake is the political future of a nation.
Wait, isn’t this supposed to be against ISIS?
Yes, the Saudis have stated that the goal of this intervention is to fight ISIS. However, looking at the context, it’s hard to imagine any other rational reason for the Saudis to intervene other than to save the rebels. Remember that Russia said that it was intervening to help out in the war against ISIS but actually overwhelmingly targeted moderate rebels.
Given the situation, It’s hard to imagine the Saudi intervention is what they say it is. Yeah, they might fight ISIS but it will be Sunni rebels, not the Syrian Arab Army who takes more ground and more than likely the (intended) principal side effect will be a strengthening of the rebel factions through training and supply .
What would the intervention look like?
With Saudi Arabia already devoting a significant amount of their forces to fighting the Iranian backed Houthis in Yemen the invasion is unlikely to be massive.
It is possible that Saudi Arabia could coordinate with other countries in region to increase the amount of troops on the ground. This seems especially likely given their upcoming military exercises with other Arab and allied nations.
According to the Egyptian defense ministry (whose forces are participating in the exercises) the purpose of the exercises are not only to enhance combat readiness but to “increase coordination between armies” and “facilitate exchange of information and experience.” One key potential ally might be Turkey, which is currently deciding on it’s own intervention.
Turkey is in a similar place to the Saudi Kingdom when it comes to Syria and has long spoken of creating a “safe zone”(read “buffer”) near their border, inside Syria.
Would would the political objective be?
The original objective for the Sunni states was to overthrow Bashar Al-Assad. That goal is now in ruins thanks to the Russian intervention. The presence of Saudi military might deter further attacks by Russia, Assad or Iranian proxies. Russia closed that option for the United States against Assad in a similar way when they placed air defenses and troops inside his territory.
An intervention would also allow them to advise allies on the ground in a way they cannot do at the moment. It would also create a simpler way to supply the rebels. With Saudi boots on the ground, shipments of weapons from Turkey could be routed through them instead being subject to Russian attack. In short, the political objective of the intervention would be to save their rebels allies from destruction and prevent a total victory for Saudi Arabia’s enemies.