Intriguing Opportunity and Dangers of Ground Forces in Syria

This week’s most intriguing sign of things to come was the official announcement that Saudi Arabia is willing to provide ground forces to fight “Islamic State” (ISIS) in Syria.

This week was full of omens that Syria in its already fractured and suffering condition should look forward to more misery, due to the actions of Syrians as well as foreign powers, amidst slow-moving negotiations for ceasefires and a future political transition. The most intriguing sign of things to come was the official announcement that Saudi Arabia is willing to provide ground forces to fight  “Islamic State” (ISIS) in Syria, if the anti-ISIS countries that will meet in Brussels this month agree on a coordinated ground-and-air strategy.

The possible Saudi Arabian military move on the ground is doubly intriguing because it comes at a time when the United States has already increased the number of its special operations forces operating against ISIS in Iraq (and probably also in Syria), while some signs suggest that Turkey may be preparing to make some ground incursions in northern Syria. Foreign land forces fighting inside Syria would be a very significant development in the battle against ISIS. Yet this also raises important questions about the consequences of such action, questions that typically are neither asked nor answered by any government before it undertakes military action inside an Arab country.

Saudi Arabia’s potential ground action in Syria is important if it reflects a willingness among major regional powers to do what is needed to break up ISIS’ territorial base in northern Syria and Iraq. Every politician or soldier who comments on the challenge of defeating ISIS correctly notes that air power alone will not do the job, as the past nineteen months have proven. ISIS and Al-Qaeda keep expanding their territorial reach and footholds in other countries, in direct parallel with American-led aerial military attacks against them. The last nineteen months also show that when combined aerial and ground forces attack ISIS, they win and force it to retreat, as half a dozen such cases in Syria and Iraq confirm.

So the prospect of Saudi Arabian troops in Syria signals three critical things: the possibility of a genuinely united and coordinated international military strategy to defeat ISIS using all available means; Arab and other regional powers’ willingness to fight on the ground in this battle; and, the likelihood of other Arab states joining any multi-national force that includes Saudi troops.

It remains unclear, though, if such a Saudi Arabian move would activate the multinational, Arab-Islamic, unified force that was announced three months ago, whose mission is to fight against terrorism and extremism in the Middle East. That announcement seems not to have been followed up by any practical measures to create this force, just as an Arab League announcement nearly a year ago to create an Egyptian-led multinational force for a similar purpose was never actualized.

Saudi Arabian, Turkish, American, or other foreign troops in Syria also should ring an alarm bell. Whatever may be its motive or context, any Saudi Arabian ground action inside Syria must be seen in the wake of the last nine months of Saudi-led warfare in Yemen. That war has reached something of a stalemate, with neither side achieving clear victory or defeat, but both sides able to say they fought to protect their interests and assert their principles. The Yemeni people have suffered mightily, as a majority of them today survives only on international relief aid. It is likely that serious efforts will now be made to find a diplomatic solution to end the Yemen war in a manner that allows all interested parties to go back to the negotiating table to agree on a realistic mechanism to govern Yemen.

A Saudi-led Arab effort to fight against ISIS could have positive consequences, if it is configured in a realistic and mature manner that accurately addresses the causes of the dangers we face in this region, and proposes solutions to them that give us hope that the Arab World might look forward to a new era of stability, growth, justice and equity in the lives of all citizens. Such a sensible approach is rarely applied in wars within Arab states, whether waged by local or foreign powers. Any new militarism inside Syria and Iraq would do well to note the hard legacy of post-war chaos and national fragmentation in half a dozen Arab states, like Syria, Somalia, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen, where wars open the door for militants and terrorists to set up shop and expand throughout the region.

War is clearly necessary to defeat ISIS, but such a war should be intelligently planned so that it removes the immediate threat but also offers realistic post-war ideas to stabilize Syria and do what no Arab or foreign power has ever done in this region: seriously tackle the underlying drivers of militancy, ideological extremism and terrorism, which mainly comprise state autocracy, corruption, disparities, police state brutality, and regular invasions by foreign armies.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global