Saudi Arabia is holding talks with the US about sending troops into northeast Syria as part of an international coalition that would replace US forces , said Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.
The statement was made in the wake of US President Donald J. Trump’s surprise announcement that he plans to pull out American military personnel from Syria and hand over the responsibility to Arab nations from the Gulf and surrounding Levant.
Speaking at a press conference alongside UN Head Antonio Guterres on April 17, al-Jubeir said Riyadh had considered deploying an expeditionary force into Syria early as 2011, when the ongoing conflict first began.
“We made a proposal to the Obama administration that if the US were to send forces…then Saudi Arabia would consider doing so, along with other countries, as part of a joint contingent,” said al-Jubeir.
The Saudi Defence Ministry had in 2016 already offered to send ground troops to Syria to participate in operations carried out by the US-led coalition against ISIS. The Saudis, however stopped short of committing to a full deployment of ground troops to fight ISIS after having already become bogged down in the ongoing Yemeni Civil War. At the time, Riyadh offered to take part in a limited capacity, saying they were ready to launch air strikes against the Islamic State.
Al-Jubeir’s latest statement likely indicates the determination of the Saudis to continue their campaign of countering the influence of Iran, Riyadh’s traditional archenemy in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia’s State Minister for Arab Gulf Affairs, Thamer al-Sabhan, visited the then-recently liberated Syrian city of Raqqa in September 2017, the self-declared capital of ISIS, to offer Saudi financial assistance for the city’s reconstruction.
According to Samir Seifan, an economist and researcher from the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, the US’ approach to Syria following ISIS’ defeat is similar to the military strategy employed in Iraq before the Americans’ formal withdrawal in 2011.
“On the one hand, Trump wants to pull American troops out of Syria. But on the other hand, Washington wants to keep control of the developments in the region. The same thing happened to the American policy in Iraq…we are well aware how it ended up,” Seifan said.
The Syrian War began after the country’s Sunni population was swept up by the Arab Spring protests the spread from the Maghreb in North Africa to the Persian Gulf over the course of the last weeks of 2011 and early 2012.
The initials stages of the fighting saw a bloody civil war break out between the majority Sunnis and forces loyal to the government of Bashar al-Assad, a member of the minority Alawite community, a sect of Shia Islam.
The war later expanded into a proxy war between Assad’s main backers –Russia, Iran, and Lebanon’s radical Shiite party, Hezbollah – against a US-led coalition that supported the Syrian rebels. Since the involvement of the outside players in the conflict, as well as the rise of ISIS in early 2014, and the battlefield success of Syria’s Kurds and Turkey’s subsequent invasion of the north of country to crush their advances, the war has become a morass of multi-sided conflicts with few prospects of forging a lasting peace agreement that is acceptable to all sides.
According to the UN, over 5 million Syrians have fled the country since the beginning of the conflict and 6 million more are internally displaced, while an estimated 13 million people are in need of urgent assistance.