Uneasy Riyadh and Changing War Dynamics in Syria

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Afshin Shahi
Director of the Centre for the Study of Political Islam at the University of Bradford

After many months of expectation for the new round of Syria talks, the negotiation processes in Geneva III only lasted for three days. The suspension of the UN-backed talk once again highlighted the difficulties of finding a political solution for one of the most multidimensional and multifaceted conflicts of the recent history.

The failure of negotiation in Geneva was in part because of the fact that the war has come to a standstill. This exhaustive war has been going on for five years and yet there has been no clear loser or winner on the ground. In this situation, diplomacy cannot have a meaningful chance to bring an end to the war. All sides want to negotiate from the position of strength, so they would take every measure to have an upper hand, before going to the negotiation table.

However, in recent weeks the balance of power has been slightly shifting in favor of Bashar Assad and his allies on the ground in Syria. In recent days Aleppo has been the centre of attention in Syria. Before the civil war Aleppo was the economic powerhouse of Syria, but since 2012 this highly strategic city has been roughly divided between the government forces controlling the western half and rebel factions controlling the east.

In recent weeks Bashar Assad’s military, backed by Russian air force, instigated an offensive around the north-west of the city which ended the siege of two pro-government towns. Furthermore, the Syrian military blocked an important supply route into the city which was crucial for the rebels. Since then the Syrian military has been pushing towards the Turkish border, at some point they were only 25 kilometres away. It is still too early to say that there is major turning point on the ground, but things are going very well for Damascus at the moment. The recent changes in Syria have pushed regional stakeholders such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey to rethink their position.

We recently heard the spokesperson for the Saudi Ministry Defense talking about the possibility of sending ground troops as part of an international effort to confront ISIS in Syria. In this light both the Saudi defence minister and deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman have attended a meeting of defence ministers from 49 countries at NATO headquarters to discuss how to deal with ISIS.

Saudi Arabia claims that by sending ground troops to Syria they want to confront ISIS, but the real reason behind sending troops to Syria cannot be only about ISIS.

Mohammed bin Salman, the 31-year old defense minister and the son of King Salman, is considered to be the most adventurous figure in Saudi politics today. Over the last year, Mohammed bin Salman has been the main force in shaping the Saudi defence and security policies in the Middle East. Under his watch Saudi Arabia officially entered the Yemeni civil war which already has been very costly for Riyadh. Now Mohammed bin Salman wants Saudi Arabia to play a more active role in Syria, a new role which could potentially change the nature of the war and take it to a new level.

It is possible to suggest that the Saudi decision to send ground troops to Syria is primarily a reaction to the changing war dynamics in Syria. Hence, the new policy can be seen as a new effort to prevent further advancement of the Syrian military into northern Syria. The recent successful operations by the government forces have taken the anti-Assad coalition by surprise. Hence now Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have also offered to join forces with Saudi Arabia. More importantly, in recent weeks, both Riyadh and Ankara have been in close contact over the rising issues in Syria. One of the options being discussed by the two anti-Assad regional actors is to establish “safety zone” inside Syria, a policy which never can be straightforward.

It is important to remember that the possibility of either Saudi or Turkish troops directly entering Syria can potentially move the war to a new phase because it can increase the possibility of direct confrontation between their troops and pro government forces. Any remote possibility of direct confrontation between a country like Saudi Arabia and the Syrian government or any of its regional allies could transform the proxy nature of the war to a direct confrontation. The situation in Syria which is overshadowed by the regional dynamics is just too perfect for escalation; it is very easy for things to get out of control. Once important regional players start to directly operate within the same space the outright confrontation will no longer be a matter of if, but when, a daunting prospect which can engulf the region in fire.

Source: Tehran Times

*Photo Credit: Mosa'ab Elshamy/AP

*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.

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