Should we expect the Sunni-bloc to begin a military intervention in Syria next month? Will it enter through the gates of Turkey, or Jordan, or both?
On Sunday, Saudi monarch King Salman Ibn Abdel Aziz used the occasion of opening the annual Janadriya cultural festival in Riyadh to speak to writers and journalists about foreign affairs. In particular he appeared to offer a rebuke to Iran, which the Kingdom considers to be fomenting unrest saying ‘It is our right to defend ourselves, without interfering in the affairs of others. We call on others to not interfere in our affairs’.
King Salman also mentioned the co-operation of Sunni states in ‘defending’ Yemen, describing the Kingdom’s operations there as ‘ensuring their independence and guarding their government systems as sanctioned by their peoples’.
The King’s words come as his country prepares to send troops to Syria, having conducted joint military exercises with other countries such as Egypt and the Sudan in preparation for this intervention which will be named Northern Thunder. Turkey is expected to be the portal of entry for these troops into Syrian territory.
This intervention is billed as a battle with Islamic State (IS), but the real goal is to counteract recent advances by the Syrian Army with Russian air cover, and to support opposition forces.
Saudi Arabia is besieged by doubt and insecurity these days. First because it fears political or moral defeat in Syria, where it has spent billions on arming and training the opposition; second because if the Assad regime survives it will restore the backbone of Iranian influence to full capacity. In order to avoid this fate, Saudi Arabia is prepared to employ all of its military and financial capacities, whatever the human and material costs.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who allowed his country to be the portal for thousands of foreign recruits flocking to join IS and other extremist groups, yesterday welcomed the Saudi plan to send troops into Syria, suggesting that Turkey may join the Kingdom in a military adventure against the Damascus regime. The UAE has also welcomed the Saudi initiative.
This plan has been long in the making as was first flagged by US Senator Lindsay Graham who told a news conference in September of American hopes for a 100,000-strong Arab army to fight IS.
Saudi sources tell us that the military intervention is expected to begin next month, and may enter through Jordan as well as Turkey, Damascus being a mere 90km from the Jordanian border.
What is striking in all this, is that the Saudi King claims that his country does not interfere in the affairs of others in the same breath as he approves an intervention in Syria. Saudi Arabia’s intervention has already cost the lives of 10,000 people. If this is not ‘interference’ we pray to God to enlighten us with a better understanding of the meaning of words and military strategy.
There is still hope that the Saudis will retreat from the brink of a new disaster in Syria and a confrontation with Iran. Yet Riyadh seems to believe it has become some kind of new superpower overnight which is astonishing since it has done nothing at all during the past 60 years to resolve the injustice of the Palestine-Israel conflict and has always avoided any military intervention in that situation which one would have thought should be dear to its Arab and Moslem heart.
The ‘wanna be’ superpower should perhaps take stock of its military expertise: it has been battering one of the world’s poorest countries for the past eleven months, fighting ill-equipped Houthi tribesmen with the very latest technology and sophisticated fighter jets… and has got precisely nowhere. So how will Saudi forces fare when faced with modern Russian aircraft, the Syrian army – battle-hardened and fighting fit after five years of civil war, brigades of top guerrilla fighters courtesy of Hezbollah and possibly Iranian and Russian ground units too?
And don’t let’s forget the elephant in the room – Islamic State – who will also be targeting the Kingdom’s soldiers. Based in the same branch of Wahhabism, it is not unlikely that some Saudi troops will be loathe (and/or scared) to fight their ideological brethren and may run away – as Iraqi battalions did – or, worse, join them.
The coming days are very difficult for the region. Many people, including Saudis, will pay the ultimate price for the military ambitions of their leaders, shedding their blood and losing everything.