The Sunni-Shi'a War
Saudi Arabia to Send Ground Troops to Syria?

Yet another player may increase its presence in the Syrian Civil War: Saudi Arabia. The New York Times reports:

A Saudi military spokesman says the kingdom is ready to send ground troops to Syria to fight Islamic State group provided coalition leaders agree during an upcoming meeting in Brussels.

Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri told The Associated Press on Thursday that Saudi Arabia has taken part in coalition airstrikes against IS since the U.S.-led campaign began in September 2014, but could now provide ground troops.

The United States is scheduled to convene a meeting of defense ministers from countries fighting IS in Brussels this month.

If Saudi Arabia does this—and that’s a big if—it will likely win applause from Western leaders, starting with President Obama, who are eager to see an Arab ground force take the lead against ISIS. But nobody should set their hopes too high. Since Saudi Arabia shifted out of its traditionally conservative foreign policy into a more interventionist stance, the results have been mixed at best. Exhibit A is Yemen, where months of indiscriminate bombing have led to only limited gains at the cost of deeper involvement in a quagmire (not to mention the cost in money and civilian causalities). Saudi inexperience and the country’s tendency towards the use of indiscriminate airpower would likely face similar tactical limitations in Syria—and deploying that kind of airpower against Syria’s Sunni civilian population would risk inflaming radicalism at home.

But it’s not likely to stop there. The Saudi shift towards adventurism was prompted by the terror of being abandoned by the U.S. as the Iranian Shi’a threat advances. The Saudis will likely be at least as interested in taking on Assad and his Iranian backers as they are in fighting ISIS should they send ground forces to Syria. But because Assad is backed by Russia, this means that a close U.S. ally could find itself in a shooting war with the Russian military. (Especially since Saudi Arabia has been coordinating on Syrian issues with its Sunni “frenemy” Turkey—a NATO member that shot down a Russian bomber plane in November of last year.)

So while Saudi involvement could be superficially seen as local actors finally taking a greater role in Syria, in reality, it’s a sign that more great powers are getting sucked into the vacuum created by U.S. regional leadership. And as more new and inexperienced actors involve themselves in the blood-soaked sands of Syria, the potential for great-power conflict continues to rise.

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