If Saudi Arabia sends ground troops to Syria, it would be the first time that the kingdom has fought two wars at the same time in the Middle East.
In September 2014, the White House emphasized the importance of obtaining support from Sunni Arab states prior to launching an air campaign against Daesh (Islamic State) targets in Iraq and Syria. For the Obama administration, successfully soliciting the help of four Gulf Arab kingdoms—Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—in addition to Egypt and Jordan, represented a major foreign policy achievement. The last time Washington assembled such an international coalition to wage a military campaign on Arab soil was Operation Desert Storm in 1991, although on a much grander scale.
Since fall 2015, American politicians on both sides of the aisle have grown disappointed with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members’ contribution to the US-led efforts to fight Daesh. A growing number of voices in the US government have accused these monarchies of shifting their focus away from the campaign against Daesh in Iraq and Syria to the conflict in Yemen. Indeed, in recent months, the percentage of the Washington-led coalition bombs dropped on Daesh targets by GCC fighter jets has been near zero, with the US and France doing virtually all of the heavy lifting.
However, recent declarations from officials in Saudi Arabia raise questions about Riyadh’s priorities with respect to the regional threat posed by Daesh. On February 4, Saudi Brigadier General Ahmed Asseri told Al Jazeera that “the Saudi kingdom announced its readiness to participate with ground troops . . . against” Daesh because “air strikes cannot be enough.” A few days later, the UAE joined Saudi Arabia in saying a real campaign against the group has “to include a ground force.” US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter welcomed the news, but a healthy degree of skepticism about his enthusiasm appears warranted.
It makes sense for Saudi Arabia to deploy ground forces to fight Daesh in Syria, particularly given that the terrorist organization has its sights set on the kingdom, and that the Saudis have one of the world’s most highly armed militaries.