150,000 Soldiers Set to Fight ISIS; What’s the Play?
Wed, February 10, 2016
An American soldier trains Saudi infantry fighters. (Wikipedia)
It’s almost five years since the civil war erupted in Syria. To most of us it’s not that clear who is fighting whom and why?
This confusion is only increasing with time. Now, Saudi Arabia intends dispatching ground forces and leading the coalition against ISIS in Syria.
Is that something to be welcomed?
Let’s try to understand the complexities in a few words and then predict where things are headed.
So What’s Happened in Syria in Recent Years?
The civil war started in early 2011 along with the Arab Spring. First came the protests against the Assad regime, which quickly turned into outbreaks of violence between government security forces and the opposition. This eventually led to the full-blown civil war.
So how did it all begin? This video helps understand:
Even at the onset of the war, President Bashar al-Assad enjoyed financial and military support from Iran, his closest ally. Later, Hezbollah also helped prop up Assad.
Meanwhile, the opposition benefitted from material support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
In 2014, ISIS, which had broken away from al-Qaeda, began developing its caliphate in Syria and Iraq but at that time was not specifically fighting Assad.
What Roles Did the Traditional Superpowers Play?
Russia, which fully supported Assad, joined the battle in 2015, allegedly to fight ISIS. However, in actual fact, Moscow fought against those rebel forces that were battling Assad and that did not necessarily include ISIS.
With the United States the situation is less clear.
Initially, Washington supported the rebels against Assad. The U.S. even threatened a military strike against the Syrian president after he used chemical weapons.
As the rebellion took on a more jihadist nature, the U.S. position became increasingly one of hesitance. The Obama administration began seeking out the more moderate rebels.
Once ISIS joined the fighting, the U.S. stood aggressively against the Islamic State. At that point, it appeared Assad was no longer in America’s crosshairs.
What Happened This Week?
The Saudi army is about to launch a training program in order to fight ISIS in Syria, advisor to the Saudi Defense Ministry Brig.-Gen. Ahmad Assiri said Feb. 4. Riyadh declared the country will lead a 20-Muslim-nation force against ISIS. The task force will number 150,000 soldiers.
Watch Saudi soldiers train with their Pakistani counterparts:
Iran didn’t take long to react to the statement from its arch enemy, Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis pretend to fight terror by sending in symbolic forces, charged Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp Deputy Chief of Staff Hussein Salami on Feb. 6. Riyadh is really supporting terror groups in Syria, he added.
This will only inflame the situation, other Iranian officials said.
Washington welcomed the Saudi initiative while Moscow distanced itself from the move.
What Do the Saudis Really Want?
In order to understand the Saudi step, one must remember Iran and Saudi have been busy of late in a Shiite-Sunni power play for domination of the Middle East.
The tension peaked when rioters torched the Saudi embassy in Tehran, after Riyadh executed a Shiite cleric. As a result, Riyadh cut diplomatic ties with Tehran.
Saudi Arabia is feeling somewhat self-confident after gaining the upper hand in leading a coalition of Sunni states against the Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen.
It appears Riyadh has tired of being passive and wants to flex its muscles. As a result, Saudi Arabia decided it is high time it fights ISIS in Syria, which until now has been fully in the Iranian sphere of influence.
This is serving to further entrench Saudi Arabia as a region superpower.
Until now, Saudi has not put boots on the ground and may actually not proceed with its declared intentions but either way Riyadh is signaling to Iran, Russia and the U.S. that it is setting the tone and is ready to accept the consequences.
Should Moscow and Washington continue to show restraint in the face of the Saudi plan, that will only increase Riyadh’s self-confidence.
This is how Iran presents its involvement in Syria: