Saudi Arabia reminds us why arming the Syrian rebels was such a bad idea

By Matt Purple, February 5, 2016

Peace talks in the Syrian Civil War are underway, but on the ground the violence continues to rage. The Assad regime, backed by the Russians, has been pummeling rebel forces in northern Syria. Now they’re starting to see results. The BBC reports:

Syrian government forces are reported to have broken a siege of two towns north-west of Aleppo, severing a key rebel supply route into the city. …

A military source told the AFP news agency that opposition-controlled areas of Aleppo were now cut off from Turkey, to the north, which backs the rebels.

This is a major blow to the rebels, who have controlled the eastern half of Aleppo since 2012. It’s also a punch in the jaw to Turkey, which has long bolstered the rebellion with weapons and aid shipments. Forces loyal to the regime are now in control of the countryside north of the city and the air is thick with tension. A director from the charity group Mercy Corps declared last night that “it feels like a siege of Aleppo is about to begin.” The people of Aleppo apparently agree; tens of thousands of them havestampeded out of the city and towards the Turkish border. The refugee crisis that’s shaken Europe for months is about to get even worse.

Thanks to the Russian air force, the forces loyal to Assad have found new momentum. If they can retake Aleppo, they’ll have a better vantage point from which to scatter the rebels. Faysal Itani and Hossam Abouzahr of the Atlantic Council explain why:

Rebel forces in northwestern Syria receive supplies from Turkey through two border crossings: Bab al-Salama in Aleppo province and Bab al-Hawa in Idlib province. If the regime takes Aleppo city, it could then target supply lines between Idlib- and Hama-based insurgents and Turkey. The regime may opt not to take Aleppo now, however, preferring to bomb and besiege it instead. That would simply freeze the Aleppo city frontlines and allow Assad and his allies to deploy fighters and resources elsewhere, including in Idlib and Hama. Regardless, the regime’s strategy will be isolating the opposition into manageable pockets and dealing with each individually.

This is something Gulf Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar—longtime allies of the rebels that are still nourishing the fantasy of a united anti-Assad front—cannot allow to happen. Not only would it make Assad’s military objectives easier to accomplish, it would also weaken the rebellion at the negotiating table by further dividing its many factions. That’s the context in which this news from yesterday should be read:

Saudi Arabia has offered for the first time to send ground troops to Syria to fight Islamic State, its defence ministry said on Thursday.

“The kingdom is ready to participate in any ground operations that the coalition (against Isis) may agree to carry out in Syria,” said military spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed al-Asiri during an interview with al-Arabiya TV news.

Saudi sources told the Guardian that thousands of special forces could be deployed, probably in coordination with Turkey.

At first glance, this seems like reason for celebration. Saudi Arabia has for too long postponed action against the Islamic State so it can pursue a disastrous and illegal war in Yemen, leaving the United States to dump the vast majority of the bombs on ISIS targets. Saudi boots on the ground will help assure liberated Sunnis in Syria and Western Iraq that they’re not being targeted by a Western-led crusade or an Iranian-masterminded holy war. A major Sunni power is finally taking responsibility for the ISIS threat. Good news, right?

To an extent. The problem is that nearly everyone meddling in Syria has an ulterior motive. The Iranians want to maintain their circuit to Hezbollah in Lebanon by way of Damascus. Many of the rebel groups want to establish Sharia law. The Kurds want to carve off their own state, while Turkey wants to block any Kurdish hope of independence. Likewise, Saudi Arabia’s real goal is to sucker punch Iran by supporting the rebels against Assad. This supersedes destroying the Islamic State, which is viewed as chiefly an American concern. The bottom line is that any Saudi intervention in Syria will be aimed first and foremost at stymying the Assad regime, even if it’s ostensibly meant to target ISIS. Russian bombs and looming defeat in Aleppo seem to have forced the Kingdom’s hand.

This is why America’s erstwhile plan to support the rebels was such folly. When you zoom the camera out from Syria, you don’t see revolutionaries challenging a tyrannical government, but a mess of factions pursuing their own interests, many of which involve sectarianism and few of which involve democracy. And even when you focus back on shivering Aleppo, the picture is still far from clear-cut. Among the rebels holed up there—and among the beneficiaries of any American intervention—are fighters from al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, regarded by some experts as a more insidious threat than ISIS. There may be a far-flung political solution for America to pursue against Assad, but there isn’t, and never was, a military one.

Matt Purple is a fellow at Defense Priorities and deputy editor of Rare Politics.

This piece was originally published by Rare on February 5, 2016. Read more HERE

Photo courtesy yeowatzup.