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The Syrian battleground is so crowded that it is difficult to understand who is fighting who. On one side, Russians and Iranians are supporting Bashar al Assad's troops, alongside with Lebanese and Iraqi Shia volunteers and the Hezbollah. On the opposite front, there are a myriad of group that include the Free Syrian Army and Salafi formations like Jabhat al Nusra, Jaish al Sham, Jaish al Suri al Hurr, Suqur al Jabal, Ansar al Sharia, Ansar el Din, Ahrar al Sham and so forth.

Are they all united against Assad? Not necessarily. Some of them fight on behalf of their sponsors, be they Saudi Arabia, Turkey or Western powers. Others instead, like Jabhat al Nusra, are affiliated with Al Qaeda and are on a collision course with the ISIS. The Syrian kurds from the YPG, the military wing of the Democratic Union Party, don't fight Assad, but do against the ISIS. There are then the Iraqi Peshmerga, who also fight against the ISIS but are not in good terms with the YPG. Syria is the typical scenario of everyone against everyone. What happens on the ground is similar to what happens in the skies. The Syrian airspace is currently occupied by the Russians, Syrians, US and other nations.

In such a chaos, there was really no need for Saudi Arabia to announce its intention to send ground troops into Syria to fight terrorism. The initiative, still lacking details, will either see a direct Saudi commitment or the deployment of units from the so-called “Islamic NATO”. In the latter case, the risk of a sectarian struggle between a predominantly Sunni coalition and the Shia could become a reality. In fact, it is unclear whether the Saudis intend to actually fight terrorism, or prevent Iranian expansionism.

mohammed bin salman
Mohammed bin Salman

The fear of Iran

Saudi Arabia fears the rise of Iranian influence and Teheran stretching its tentacles from Baghdad to Damascus and all the way to Beirut. It all began with the agreement on Iran's nuclear program and the green light for the Ayatollah's regime to return on the international scene in the role of regional power. The fact that the deal was brokered by the United States has pushed the Saudis to get involved in Syrian affairs. Riyadh feels it has lost the uncritical support of the United States. Furthermore, US President Barack Obama has made it clear that he does not intend to send any troops to quell the unrest in the Middle East. This has put Saudi Arabia in a vulnerable position. In the light of these circumstances, the reign of the Saud, known for its quiet diplomacy and prudent foreign policy stances, has become interventionist and militaristic.

It is unclear whether such a bellicose attitude can be solely attributed to the King's son and Minister of Defense, Mohammed bin Salman. He is definitely trying to gain the spotlight in a crowded royal court and attempting to be perceived as the man for the future. Doubts remain whether such an attitude is borne out of fear or unscrupulousness. King Salman's Saudi Arabia is already involved in the conflict in Yemen, it is ambiguous when it comes to fighting Islamic terrorism and the support given by Saudi Wahabi organization to Salafi groups and is affected by an encirclement syndrome that consciously mistakes theocratic aspirations for hegemonic ones.

The Syrian gamble

The decision to deploy troops in Syria is definitely both a political and military gamble. Saudi Arabia is like a poker player. They sit at the table and keep on raising the stakes although they don't have a good hand. But bluffs don't always succeed in the Middle East. If what they intend to do is to counter the Iranian military support to the Assad regime – and thus expect to dictate the conditions during the talks in Geneva – they definitely have to think twice about putting their boots on the ground, either directly or together with a coalition.

Despite the statements from the Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs, Adel al Jubeir, on the future of Assad, little will change for the Saudis if the new ruler in Damascus is supported by both Russians and Iranians. Furthermore, the Saudi initiative adds more international players to an already crowded conflict zone; it creates the conditions for a war that could spill over the geographical boundaries of Syria and involve the entire region. The Russian Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev has already spoken about the risk of a “total war”.

If the Saudis lead the way, it will be interesting to see who will follow them in their adventure. Of the 35 countries member of the “Islamic NATO”, quite a few will turn the offer down. If Riyadh will possibly rely on the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, with the exception of Oman, Egypt will quite surely keep away from the Syrian quagmire. Cairo opposes the intervention in Yemen, does not have a good relationship with Turkey and is already fighting terrorism at home, both in the Sinai and in the areas bordering Libya and the Gaza Strip.

nimr al nimr
Nimr al Nimr

A premeditated escalation

The tensions with Teheran date back to 1979 when the secular monarchy of the Shah was overturned by a theocratic regime similar to the one already existing in Saudi Arabia, where the Saud dynasty relies on the support of the Wahabi clergy. Since then, the bilateral relationship has been a struggle for the leadership in the region, both political and religious. Proxy wars were fought, like during Saddam Hussein's war against Iran with Saudi funding or, more recently, in Bahrein and Yemen. The conflict might now evolve into a direct confrontation.

The escalation was not a coincidence. The execution of Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al Nimr was a deliberate and carefully considered decision. Over the past weeks, 32 people, in majority Shias, were put on trial in Saudi Arabia for espionage in favor of Iran. This is an unprecedented decision that puts more strain on the bilateral relationship between the two countries, presently suspended following the attack on the Saudi embassy in Teheran. The last piece of the puzzle is the designation of the Hezbollah as a terrorist group by both the countries in the Gulf and the Arab League. After having cut its financing to Lebanon, the Saudis have already chosen which terrorists they intend to fight in Syria.

In the light of such a chain of events, any commentator should ponder where the advantages and disadvantages lie and evaluate the risks. Are the Saudis using a bellicose strategy to attain a strategic objective? What if they are just showing their muscles for the sake of internal and international propaganda? If so, why announce the deployment of troops within two months? Such a timetable is incompatible with the ongoing military and political developments in Syria. Hence, even announcing the intention to deploy could amount to sheer carelessness.

Out of time

In concrete terms, putting together and deploying a military coalition would require at least twice the amount of time estimated by the Saudis. An operation abroad requires thorough planning, logistics and, given the participation of other countries, the definition of procedures, operational integration, a common command and control system, rules of engagement and so forth. Furthermore, several countries are presently involved in Syria. Some may be considered “friendly”, others “hostile”. You need to coordinate your actions with your friends and avoid clashing with your enemies. And this is not easy to do.

The prelude to what may happen took place from February 14 to March 10 during the joint military exercise in the north east of Saudi Arabia. Boasting the name “Thunder of the North”, it saw the participation of 150 thousand troops, over two thousand airplanes and 20 thousand tanks coming from about 20 Arab or Islamic countries. Units from Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt, Sudan, Jordan, Kuwait, Tunisia, Malaysia and Morocco carried out the dress rehearsal of the hypothetical intervention in Syria. At the same time, Saudi airplanes are being deployed at the Incirlik airbase in Turkey.

Chances are the Saudi gamble could be part of a strategic plan being carried out together with Turkey. Both countries oppose Assad, both fear Russian and Iranian expansionism, both want to dictate the conditions on the future of Syria. There are only two ways into Syria: from Turkey or from Jordan. However, as several analysts have underlined, the issue is not getting into Syria, but getting out.

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