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Why Is Saudi Arabia Sending Ground Troops To Syria?

CREDIT: AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy

Saudi security forces take part in a military parade in preparation for the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia on Sept. 17, 2015.

Saudi Arabia’s militant foreign policy could potentially expand after the oil-rich Gulf state promised to fight ISIS in Syria by committing ground troops. While some believe this motion shows an increased willingness to fight ISIS, others say the Saudis want to wade into the Syrian war to help topple Assad.

“The [Saudi King] Salman doctrine is about projecting power and military strength,” Theodore Karasik, a geopolitical analyst based in Dubai, told AP. “It may be looking for leverage, but it’s also very serious.”

Saudi Arabia has been accused by the international community of fomenting strife in the Middle East by failing to counter religious extremism and inadequately trying to counter ISIS in the region. Saudi citizens also make up a worrying percentage of ISIS members, which critics say is due to the ubiquity of intolerant religious teachings there.

While Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who also pledged to commit its troops to fight in Syria, are part of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition, neither country has contributed to the fight as much as U.S. officials want. Deployment of ground troops could signal a big change in the fight against ISIS.

“We know that air strikes cannot be enough and that a ground operation is needed,” Brigadier General Ahmed Asseri, a military spokesman for the Kingdom told Al Jazeera. “We need to combine both to achieve better results on the ground.”

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is in Brussels this week discussing how to counter ISIS with his international counterparts. Carter welcomed the news of Saudi’s promise to intervene. Meanwhile, peace talks aimed at ending the Syrian civil war began on January 29, but many view them as pointless under the current political climate.

With the prospect of peace unlikely, extremist groups like ISIS are expected to continue causing havoc in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia says that by intervening after battle-hardening their troops in Yemen, they could push extremist groups back. But some experts believe Saudi Arabia has other intentions for intervening.

“Although Riyadh states about the intention to fight against the Islamic State terrorist organization, there are big doubts about that,” Vladimir Akhmetov, senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said according to the Russian Tass News Agency. “It is more likely that the Saudis intend to provide support to those armed formations which are fighting against the Syrian government forces.”

Others see this as an excuse for Saudi Arabia to try and topple Assad and counter the influence of the Assad regime’s international allies. Russia began an airstrike campaign in Syria late last year. Moscow claimed the campaign was started with the intent to beat back ISIS, but AP reports that Russia’s involvement “has sharply altered the military landscape” and pushed Saudi-backed rebels away from key outposts in northern Syria.

A ground invasion would also mean Saudi troops are fighting in the same country as some of their political enemies from Iran, Lebanon, and Afghanistan. “That would make the proxy sectarian wars that Iran and Saudi Arabia have been waging suddenly more intimate,” AP reported.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the country’s combined military forces, and a Syrian minister openly taunted Saudi Arabia recently about the prospect of sending ground troops to Syria.

“They claim they will send troops but I don’t think they will dare do so,” Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the IRGC, told Fars News Agency. “They have a classic army, and history tells us such armies stand no chance in fighting irregular resistance forces.”

“The question that Saudi Arabia should be asking itself is: What did it accomplish in Yemen? Was it successful?” Syria’s Defense Minister Walid al-Moallem said at a press conference over the weekend. “It has sown destruction, hitting every target two, three times and did not leave a stone standing. Did the Yemenis surrender?”