Possible Saudi military intervention in Syria reflects dismay over army progress

By Hummam Sheikh Ali

Saudi Arabia’s declared “readiness” to send ground troops into Syria to fight the Islamic State (IS) is seen by Damascus as a frustrated Saudi move to prop up Syrian rebels in the face of the recent sweeping victories of the Syrian army, analysts say.

Syria’s nearly five years of conflict has been largely blamed on international intervention in the course of actions on ground. Such intervention has made the crisis more complicated with international powers supporting each party of the conflict to achieve gains in this strategic Middle Eastern country.

Saudi Arabia has emerged as a supporter of Islamist insurgents, like the Islam Army, which is operating in several Syrian areas, including the vicinity of the capital Damascus.

The kingdom has also been the loudest voice demanding the downfall of the administrative of President Bashar al-Assad, mainly due to its desire to bring in a Sunni-led system in Syria and curb the Iranian sway, represented with the strong alliance between the Assad regime and the Iranians as well as Hezbollah.

Curbing the Iranian sway in the region has always been the main drive of Saudi Arabia in its anti-Assad stance, analysts say.

Observers in Damascus say that the Saudis and other regional powers have always placed their bets on dealing a defeat to the Syrian government, by providing a big deal of support to the insurgents seeking Assad’s ouster.

Until recently, the control map of the Syrian army was shrinking in favor of the numerous insurgent groups, including the IS group and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front.

However, as Hezbollah started showing up in the battles on ground and the Russian warplanes began making their way in the Syrian skies, the situation has started tilting back in favor of the government.

Not only that, but the rebels’ fragmented nature, lack of central leadership, and conflict of purposes and sway, was also a reason behind the quick falling in the face of the Syrian army, which, despite of the long and exhausting conflict, is still coherent behind its leadership, with the key support of Hezbollah and other pro-government fighters.

After the Russian Air Force intervened against the insurgent groups in Syria late last September, the Syrian Military General Command declared the beginning of a wide-scale offensive on several key fronts in Syria.

The offensives have recently started reaping fruits, with the army units retaking key areas in the north and south, cutting key rebel supply lines from border areas.

In the northern provinces of Aleppo and Damascus, close to Turkey, the military forces backed by Russia and Hezbollah have wrested control over key towns, cutting most of the rebel supply lines from the Turkish territories, whose government is also accused by Damascus of supporting the rebels in Syria.

The Aleppo battles deprived the Turkey-backed rebels of key routes from Turkey. The IS has also lost two thirds of its control over border areas between Syria and Turkey since last year due to the military campaign, according to the pan-Arab al-Mayadeen TV.

The fresh military progress has apparently raised the ire of Saudi Arabia and Turkey alike, both have had allies on ground in Syria that suffered sweeping blows by the Syrian army.

On Friday, a Saudi military spokesman said the kingdom is ready to send ground troops to fight the IS in Syria if the U.S.-led coalition agrees.

Brigadier General Ahmed Asiri told Dubai-based TV channel Al-Arabiya that the country will commit ground troops to the conflict for the first time if its coalition partners agree during an upcoming meeting in Brussels.

Saudi Arabia has taken part in the coalition’s airstrikes since the U.S. began the air assault on the IS group in September 2014.

The Syrian government regards any move into the country without its consent an aggression, particularly that Syria sees any Saudi intervention is aimed not at fighting the IS, but to render support to its militants on ground.

The Saudi declaration came just hours after the suspension of the first round of planned talks between representatives of the Syrian government and opposition groups in Geneva last week.

The UN envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, declared the suspension of the talks until Feb. 25 for the “lack of progress.”

Observers in Damascus said the Saudi-backed opposition withdrew from the talks, in an apparent anger at the military progress by the Syrian army on ground.

Riad Hijab, coordinator of the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee opposition group, said his group will not return to Geneva until a change happens on the ground in Syria, which explains the Saudi remarks.

On Sunday, pan-Arab al-Mayadeen TV said the Syrian army became 13 km away from Turkish border, pushing through rebel-held towns to reach the ultimate goal of the border’s closure.

Nahla Issa, a professor at the Media Faculty in Damascus University, told Xinhua that “amid the rapid progress of the Syrian army on ground, Saudi Arabia is trying to shuffle the cards.”

She didn’t shun aside the possibility of a ground Saudi intervention “not only because they want to make the Geneva conference a failure, but also to compensate for its consecutive losses in Yemen.”

Issa also pointed out to a unison between Riyadh and Ankara about the intention to militarily intervene in Syria, especially with the Turkish dismay with the progress of the Syrian army, particularly in Aleppo, where most of the Turkey-backed rebels are located.

“I think if the Saudis and Turks got the guts to take this move, the region would be heading toward a third World War,” she told Xinhua in an interview.

For his part, Ali al-Ahmad, an advisor to Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi, told Xinhua that the recent Saudi declaration further complicates the Syrian political landscape, noting that Riyadh is trying to convince Ankara to also intervene with ground troops into Syria.

“If they want to enter Syria, they will either come through Jordan, Iraq or Turkey, that’s why the Saudis are coordinating with Turkey and apparently discussing the move with them.”

For his part, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem warned Saudi Arabia against intervening in Syria militarily, saying those who will enter the Syrian ground without the consent of the Syrian government “will return to their countries in wooden coffins.”

Speaking at a press conference held in the capital Damascus, Syria’s top diplomat said “we will resist any violations to our sovereignty.”

“Any ground intervention in Syria without the consent of the Syrian government is an aggression that should be countered, which will be the duty of all of the Syrian people. And the aggressors will return to their countries in wooden boxes,” al-Moallem warned.

The head of the Syrian diplomacy said “the logic and the normal sense rule out any possible intervention scenario, but reviewing the crazy decisions made by Saudi Arabia in other areas suggest that nothing can be ruled out.”

“I think there is something being cooked under a U.S. supervision between Turkey and Saudi Arabia,” he said.

“Whether Saudis or Turkish, all those who will practice aggression on Syria will be sent back in wooden coffins,” he said.

The minister said the Saudi desire to enter Syria came after their frustration with the defeats dealt against the Saudi-backed militants in key Syrian areas recently.

“After the victories of the Syrian army and its allies, the conspirators against Syria have become desperate with the failure of their tools on ground, so they decided to enter personally,” he remarked.

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