By Gary A. Grappo — Offers by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to deploy forces in the fight against the Islamic State raise more questions than answers about the direction of the conflict.
Saudi Arabia recently announced that the kingdom was prepared to dispatch ground forces to Syria to fight the Islamic State (IS). Days after the Saudi announcement, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) followed suit, revealing it was also ready to supply ground troops to “help support and train an international military coalition” against IS, “provided such efforts were led by the United States.”
The announcements raise many questions but few answers.
First, why not start with more airstrikes? The US formed its coalition, of which both nations are members, to carry out an air campaign against IS almost 18 months ago. Both countries’ air forces have carried out air sorties against the terrorist organization, but relatively few have been conducted by non-US coalition members.
According to the US Department of Defense (DOD), 3,375 strikes against IS were carried out in Syria through February 10 of this year. Only 209 of those were flown by the nine non-US coalition partners whose aircraft fly in Syria, about 6% of the total. The DOD does not report the number of strikes carried out by individual coalition members other than the US. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have not released numbers of their respective airstrikes. So, while the exact numbers of Saudi and Emirati airstrikes are unknown, it is safe to assume they were a fraction of the 6% reported by the DOD.
The reason the Saudis and Emiratis have not conducted more airstrikes against IS in Syria is that their aircraft are far more fixedly engaged in the war in Yemen, which is doing nothing to counter IS anywhere. Anecdotal reports indicate that Saudi and Emirati aircraft have become a non-factor in the coalition air war against IS in Syria. But now they are apparently prepared to enter a non-existent coalition ground war against IS.
Expected American Role?
Second, in what capacity would these Arab forces be used? US Defense SecretaryAshton Carter has been actively asking for greater coalition engagement in the war against the Islamic State for weeks. So, it is heartening to see Saudi Arabia and the UAE step up. The Saudi offer was non-specific, while the UAE proposal specified for “support and training of an international military coalition.” So, there is no apparent offer of combat forces from the UAE. This author’s own presumption is that the Saudi troops would limit themselves to the same mission—i.e., no combat.
Third, what are the conditions of deployment of their respective forces? The Emiratis seemed to make it fairly clear: to “support an international military coalition.” Moreover, spokespersons for both countries implied that they would expect coalition buy-in for any ground campaign. Media reports have also speculated that they would expect such a campaign to be led by the US. That may be the final rub.
US President Barack Obama has been emphatic that he is not prepared to deploy US ground forces to fight IS in Syria—or anywhere else in the Middle East, for that matter. That does not apply to the 50 or so US Special Operators already in Syria. Nevertheless, it is clear that to carry the fight to IS in Syria as well as Iraq, more coalition forces are necessary in varying capacities—e.g., special operations forces, strike and reconnaissance aircraft, weapons and munitions, training assistance and combat support.
Such external support is certainly needed, but there is a final and more important question: Who will do the actual fighting on the ground? (One might also ask, where was all that support when it was needed three or four years ago?)
When Aleppo Falls: Who’s Left to Fight IS?
Syrian moderate opposition forces in the north, specifically in the vital city of Aleppo, are besieged and on the verge of being surrounded, if not wiped out, by Syrian regime forces supported by Russian airstrikes and Iranian-led Shia militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The moderate opposition forces operating in the south near the border with Jordan may be next. Any remaining forces in Aleppo are likely to either abandon the field and flee as millions of their countrymen have or, if truly committed, join Jabhat al-Nusra or the Islamic State.
If Aleppo is retaken by the regime and opposition forces are defeated, there may probably be very few actual moderate opposition fighting forces left to support in Syria. The only opposition forces left to confront IS may be those remaining in the south—whose principal objective to date has been battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and not IS—the YPG (People’s Protection Units) Syrian Kurdish forces and a handful of eastern tribes allied with the Kurds. That is hardly a force cable of “degrading and destroying” the Islamic State, which is the US-led coalition’s ostensible mission as enunciated by President Obama.
The Syrian Kurdish forces have been the most effective moderate opposition group confronting IS. However, their allegiance may be changing. Picking up on the changing winds of fortunes, the Syrian Kurds’ principal political organization, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is sidling up to Moscow now, where it has opened its first overseas office. The welcome mat is surely out for them, given increasing tensions between Russia and Turkey, and Ankara’s deep suspicion and distrust of the PYD and its military force, the YPG. YPG forces sympathetic to Russia would mark a major setback for opposition forces fighting IS, and for the US-led coalition against the group.
Furthermore, the bulk of Syria’s estimated 70,000 moderate opposition fightershave been directing their efforts against regime forces, and only secondarily against IS.
This further begs the question: With a significant number of those forces facing defeat, if not annihilation, or considering switching sides, who is going to fight IS? What fighting forces are Saudi Arabia and the UAE proposing to support? More pointedly, to which forces is Defense Secretary Carter asking that more international support be directed? The scattered remnants of the Aleppo disaster? The Syrian Kurds? The dispersed eastern Syria Arab tribes?
The Saudis and Emiratis seem to imply the answer: an international coalition, preferably US-led. And that seems hardly in the offing without a significant change in US policy.
Gary A. Grappo is a retired U.S. Ambassador , Consultant/Writer.
First published in Fair Observer on February 14, 2016.