A ground invasion of Syria by the Gulf States would be a terrible blunder
By Manish Rai
The UN-mediated Syrian peace talks in Geneva have been abruptly suspended. The excuse was that there was more work to be done by the big powers in sponsoring talks between all sides in Syria conflict.
The latest inconclusive Syrian peace talks were attended by representatives of the Syrian government, the Saudi-backed coalition, and the High Negotiation Committee. But they failed to reach to any understandings or settlements.
Now, other so-called efforts for restoring order in Syria are taking shape in the form of the Gulf States led by Saudi Arabia sending ground troops. The Saudis claim they are fully prepared for a land-based military intervention in Syria and they’ve begun moving ground forces and fighter aircraft to Turkey’s Incirlik air base.
The Saudi-led gulf coalition says their declared target is ISIS. But the presence of troops from the Gulf States would be taken as a hostile act by the Assad regime and its backers. This proposed ground deployment could also put a potential Syrian ceasefire in jeopardy. The bottom line is that the Saudi move increases the possibility of a massive escalation in the Syrian conflict.
Russia has already issued a stark warning of the potential consequences. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said: “The Americans and our Arab partners must think well: Do they want a permanent war?”
The Saudi plan to send ground troops into Syria appears to be merely a ruse. But this is precisely the kind of reckless saber-rattling that could ignite an all-out war, one that could embroil the US and Russia.
The House of Saud isn’t pleased with US-led diplomatic efforts on Syria. US Secretary of State John Kerry’s push to organize the Geneva negotiations faces tough going. Kerry supposedly wants to find a peace settlement to the five-year conflict. But his efforts are viewed by the Saudis as giving too many concessions to the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad and his foreign allies — Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Saudi Arabia’s proposed ground invasion in Syria may also be aimed at pressing the Syrian government and Russia to accommodate the ceasefire demands. This would provide a breathing space for Arab states-backed rebel forces. There is a widely held perception that troops from the Sunni Gulf states will provide support for Syria’s Sunni rebels who are losing ground in the war. This is likely to bring them into conflict with their Shia enemies – Iranian “volunteers” and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters backing the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
It’s obvious that the Gulf states are responding directly to the collapse of their proxy forces in the Syria conflict. Their most recent threats to further escalate the conflict in Syria tenuously hinge on “fighting ISIS.” It’s clear then, that this sudden interest in escalation has nothing to do with ISIS. It has more to do with rescuing the Saudi allied rebels forces before they are entirely eradicated and/or expelled from the country.
This ground invasion by the Gulf states coalition will, in all reality, be aimed at challenging and rolling back Syrian and Russian gains on the battlefield, or at the very least, providing an unassailable sanctuary within Syrian territory for Gulf-backed rebels. But the Saudis clearly need to weigh the risks of a conventional military intervention, given the complex conflict dynamics in Syria, before they go marching into the war zone.
The first issue confronting a Saudi-led ground operation in Syria is how to arrange air support for the operation. Without air support, it is impossible to launch a ground operation that could continue for months. Close air support is essential to protect ground forces with firepower, reconnaissance and surveillance.
The issue then becomes whether Russia, which has declared a de facto no-fly zone over northern Syria, will allow any Saudi planes and helicopters to enter Syrian airspace. Another key question is: What should be the Gulf invasion forces’ attitude towards Kurdish militias? It’s the Kurds who are coordinating their military activities with the Russians, and both are hostile towards Turkey.
The other most important aspect to be considered is an exit strategy. Neglecting an exit strategy usually comes with heavy economic and political consequences.
Moreover, it’s a very remote possibility that intervention by a ground force will be a decisive factor in the Syrian civil war. Such operations will also be counterproductive and will only prolong the conflict. The most likely result of a ground invasion would be a Golan Heights-style stand-off that could last years, if not decades.
One thing all parties must understand is that that there can be no military solution to the war in Syria. The only thing that can succeed are peace talks and reconciliation. A new round of negotiations should be launched for Syria.
It should be aimed at creating a new regime that both Russia and the US could support. From there, peace can grow. Two big world powers — the US and Russia — should also realize that the Syria is the best place to start looking for ways to enhance cooperation.
Manish Rai is a columnist for Middle-East and Af-Pak region and Editor of a geo-political news agency Views Around can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.