Saudi Arabia and Turkey weigh military action in Syria

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Saudi Arabia and Turkey are considering sending ground troops into Syria to support rebels fighting the Russia-backed Bashar Assad regime, analysts say.

“The Saudis believe that the chance of a peaceful solution for the Syrian crisis is very limited,” said Mustafa Alani of the independent Gulf Research Center. “They don’t see that there is a real pressure on the regime to give major concessions… They think eventually it will have to end on the battlefield.”

Saudi forces launch artillery at Houthi rebels in Yemen. /Getty Images
Saudi forces fire artillery shot at Houthi rebels in Yemen. /Getty Images

“Turkey is enthusiastic about this option (of ground troops) since the Russians started their air operation and tried to push Turkey outside the equation,” Alani added.

Alani said the Saudis are serious about committing troops “as part of a coalition, especially if the Turkish forces are going to be involved.”

Saudi Arabia said recently that it would consider deploying soldiers to Syria if the U.S.-led coalition decides on ground action. In November, the United Arab Emirates signaled it was prepared to commit ground troops to fight ISIL in Syria.

“I think Saudi Arabia is desperate to do something in Syria,” said Andreas Krieg of the Department of Defense Studies at King’s College London.

Krieg said the Saudi desperation arises out of the possibility that “moderate” rebels will lose the key city of Aleppo, which Syrian forces, backed by Russian air support, are closing in on.

“This is a problem for Saudi and Qatar as they have massively invested into Syria via the moderate opposition as their surrogate on the ground,” said Krieg, who is also a consultant to Qatar’s armed forces.

The analysts believe Saudi involvement in Syria would be limited as Riyadh is currently leading an Arab coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

“They are overstretched. But in principle I think they will not hesitate to send a certain number of their fighters (most likely special forces) to fight in Syria,” Alani said.

Saudi’s involvement on the ground in Syria would be more of a “symbolic” gesture given its deep involvement in Yemen, said Jane Kinninmont, senior research fellow at London’s Chatham House.

“But what you might see is small numbers of ground troops and perhaps also special forces which would be there partly to make a symbolic point that Saudi Arabia is supporting the fight against ISIL,” she said, adding she was “a bit skeptical” about potential Turkish army involvement in Syria, “but we might see them having some kind of interest in containing Kurdish influence.”

Turkey and Saudi Arabia are also part of the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL).

U.S. Central Command spokesman Pat Ryder said on Feb. 5 that the coalition welcomes Saudi Arabia’s willingness to send ground troops to fight ISIL.

Meanwhile, Russia has accused Turkey of “preparations for an armed invasion” of Syria.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Russia’s claims were “laughable.”

On Feb. 6, Damascus issued a warning to both Riyadh and Ankara against any military intervention on the ground.

“Let no one think they can attack Syria or violate its sovereignty because I assure you any aggressor will return to their country in a wooden coffin, whether they be Saudis or Turks,” Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said.