Saudi Brigadier General Ahmed al-Assiri, official spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, has made an interesting statement about Riyadh’s readiness to send ground troops to Syria. This raises a lot of questions. Does this mark a change in the Saudi foreign policy? Should we fight inside a foreign land? Why should we fight with the U.S.-led coalition? If there is a will to intervene, why don’t we fight the far more brutal al-Assad regime?
Sending ground troops to Syria seems to be a new approach. This is the first time when there is willingness from the Saudi side to participate in a ground offensive to fight ISIS in Syria. In the past, there were talks of the country’s willingness to intervene, without specifying the nature of the tasks. However, Saudi Arabia has already been part of the war in Syria since last year as a member of the U.S.-led coalition conducting air strikes against terror outfits.
Saudi Arabia has already been part of the war in Syria since last year as a member of the international coalition conducting airstrikes against terror outfitsAbdulrahman al-Rashed
There is another reason behind Saudi Arabia fighting as part of the U.S.-led coalition. Like Russia, it either has the approval of the Assad regime – which is impossible for Riyadh and highly unlikely to get a nod from Damascus anyway – or it should have the authorization of the United Nations as is currently the case with Yemen, where Saudi troops are fighting with the approval of the Security Council. Thus, the coalition receives legal cover and represents an integrated system of countries.
It is also clear why Saudi Arabia is interested in fighting against ISIS in Syria. Like many other countries, it is aware that the organization will try and target the country at some stage. It is believed that hundreds of brainwashed Saudis are fighting there and some have even tried to return and carry out terrorist attacks inside Saudi Arabia. The rationale on which ISIS would like to target Saudi Arabia are explicit and similar to those of al-Qaeda.
Choosing the fight
The most significant question is why do we fight ISIS and leave the Assad regime that has committed the most heinous crimes in the history of the region? First of all, Saudi Arabia is not a neighboring country to Syria, as Iraq and Jordan separate both the countries. Moreover, Saudi Arabia cannot fight there without an international authorization or it will be considered as conducting an act of aggression that would engender serious consequences.
Turkey has been fighting ISIS inside Iraq and Syria but not the Syrian regime, despite being enraged by it since the crisis began five years ago. Turkey has the longest border with Syria and, with 700,000 professional soldiers, it has one of the largest armies in the world. Its army would reach a million people if one adds reserves. Despite all that, Turkey is committed to international laws and has not intervened militarily.
Fighting ISIS is not just a military process; it is a political one too. By eradicating ISIS, the Russians and Iranians won’t have an excuse to destroy the national Syrian opposition that has nothing to do with extremist groups and foreign fighters. Weakening ISIS by eliminating most of its fighters, will improve the situation of the Syrian resistance, which has long been targeted by extremists and Assad forces and his allies.
This is what we are witnessing in Deraa in the south, where the Syrian regime’s allies are actively targeting the Free Syrian Army (FSA) under the pretext that they are an extremist organization. By putting the statement of Brigadier General al-Assiri in context, it will be clear that Saudi Arabia is ready to conduct land operations in Syria based on two conditions – the international will and the presence of a large military system.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Feb. 06, 2016.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.