In a development that promises to have major policy repercussions in Washington and throughout the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has offered to send ground troops into Syria to battle ISIS.
The proposal was made days before a major meeting in Brussels of the anti-ISIS coalition. The summit was requested by U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who earlier this week called out members of “our so-called coalition” for not doing more to combat the extremist network.
Since the military campaign against ISIS began in 2014, the Saudis have been responsible for a relatively small number of air strikes, but now the kingdom says it is ready to expand its involvement.
"Today, the Saudi kingdom announced its readiness to participate with ground troops with the U.S.-led coalition against ISIL, because we now have the experience in Yemen," a military spokesman told Al Jazeera. The Saudis have been helping the government in neighboring Yemen in its civil war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. “We know that air strikes cannot be enough and that a ground operation is needed. We need to combine both to achieve better results on the ground.”
The announcement comes as President Obama is weighing fresh calls by the Pentagon to add potentially hundreds more U.S. troops to the 3,700 already deployed in Iraq. The idea is to capitalize on recent gains in that country, like the recapture of Ramadi from ISIS, and prepare for the looming battle to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.
Obama has repeatedly ruled out a large-scale deployment of U.S. troops back to the Middle East, and the Saudi offer of ground forces could lead the president to conclude he can make do with the forces already in the region and nix plans to add more.
The U.S. has already sent around 50 special forces into the war-torn country to assist moderate rebel groups fighting the forces of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, but congressional Republicans want the White House to do more. Saudi troops might be the solution the administration needs to firmly answer those calls.
The kingdom’s offer could also pave the way for other nations in the region, who have made meager contributions to the anti-ISIS campaign, to step up their participation in the war in Syria.
That may be a double-edged sword, though. Saudi Arabia isn’t exactly being altruistic with its offer: Its move may be a signal of opposition to Tehran’s ongoing support of the Assad regime, much like when Riyadh chastises Iranian interference in the civil war in Yemen. A buildup in the antagonism between the two Middle Eastern powers would add another layer to the instability of the Syrian conflict.
All eyes will be on next week’s summit to determine just how much of an impact Saudi Arabia’s offer will have on a military campaign that has already cost the U.S. around $6 billion.