Saudi Arabia has always been a country that shunned direct involvement in the Mideast wars. The Kingdom used Western armies (the First Gulf War, for example) and proxies to fight them and financed parties in conflicts to influence the outcome of wars, especially those involving Israel and countries where Sunni Muslims are threatened.
But since King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Defense Minister Muhammad bin Salman took over at the beginning of 2015, things have started to change.
Saudi Arabia directly intervened in Yemen, where the Iranian-backed Shiite Houthi militia threatened to overrun the country and was in the process of establishing an Iranian satellite state on its doorstep. The Saudi intervention didn’t bring the desired results, and as the war in Yemen drags on, it is becoming increasingly clear that Saudi Arabia has lost its face in the battle against the Houthis.
But that didn’t stop Salman, Bin Nayef and Bin Salman from confronting Iran in other arenas.
The regime in Riyadh recently confronted Iran directly when it executed the popular Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr and decided to cut ties with the mullahs in Tehran after the ransacking of the Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran. Salman successfully pressured the other Gulf States to cut ties with Iran as well, but stopped short of declaring war on Iran.
At the end of 2015, Saudi Arabia formed an Islamic coalition that would combat ‘terror’ and especially Islamic State; but in reality, this coalition seemed to exist on paper only.
Now, however, the Saudis seem to have taken their involvement in the conflicts in the Middle East to a different level.
Last week, media reported that Saudi Arabia was contemplating sending ground troops to Syria, officially to help in the fight against Islamic State — but that was not the real reason for the intended intervention in Syria.
A couple of days later, a long convoy of more than 100 Humvees was spotted near the Al-Haditha border crossing with Jordan. The Oshkosh M-ATV Humvees reportedly crossed into Jordan and were heading for Syria, local citizen journalists reported.
On Sunday, media reported that Saudi Arabia has stationed a squadron of F-15 fighter planes at the Incirlik air force base in Turkey in preparation for a possible Turkish-Saudi intervention in Syria. The deployment of the Saudi warplanes at Incirlik was first denied by Turkey, but Brig. Gen. Ahmed Al-Assiri, spokesman of the Saudi Defense Ministry, confirmed Saturday the deployment of Saudi fighter jets to the Turkish base.
The Daily Caller even reported Saudi Arabia was amassing troops in Turkey, but that was denied by both Turkish and Saudi leaders and could not be independently confirmed by Western Journalism.
Officially, Turkey and Saudi Arabia say they will join the battle against ISIS; but Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that if the political process fails (read: the stalled talks in Geneva), Bashar al-Assad will be removed by force. Al-Jubeir emphasized that deployment of Saudi ground forces in Syria will be done in coordination with the U.S., but the facts on the ground contradict his statements.
Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Davutoglu confirmed the Saudi-Turkish preparations for a possible ground operation in Syria, but said that until now, only Saudi planes have been stationed in Turkey. He also said that Saudi military officials had made ‘exploratory visits’ to Turkey recently.
The news about the emerging grand Sunni coalition in the Syrian war comes after the United States accepted for the first time that Assad will stay in power by agreeing to a cessation of hostilities in Syria, instead of confronting Russia about its direct help to the Syrian dictator.
The Turks and the Saudis saw that the Russians and the Iranians are dictating events in Syria and are exerting their power and influence in the region while the United States is in retreat. Both Turkey and Saudi Arabia feel betrayed by the Obama administration and noticed the West’s response to Russian and Iranian imperialism in the Middle East is only more blabbering about ceasefires and empty talk about the need for regime change in Syria.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia are large Sunni states and don’t want the minority Shiites or Alawites to rule over Syria again. They saw how Hezbollah and the regime forces laid siege to Sunni towns and villages and began to starve the Sunni residents, and know that Sunnis will be slaughtered by the droves if Assad, Hezbollah, and the Iranians win the war.
So, they decided to act the moment it became clear that the Obama administration refused to stand up against the Russians.
Jamal Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi journalist and former advisor to then-ambassador Prince Turki al-Faisal, told Lebanese media that the Saudis don’t bluff. “It is serious, it is the beginning of Saudi intervention in Syria to change the balance, to bring balance back,” Khashoggi said.
He added the Saudi intervention in Syria could be averted “if the Americans can get the Russians to stop bombing and go back to Geneva.”
But events in Syria are already spinning out of control.
Turkey is now operating in Syria and has succeeded in expelling Kurdish YPG forces from the border town of Azaz. A hospital in the town was hit by missiles that Turkey says were fired by Russian warplanes. Fourteen civilians died in the attack.
Elsewhere in Syria, warplanes destroyed a hospital of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Turkey claimed the Russians did it, but Russia denied the allegations. The Russians accused Ankara of bringing in fresh Jihadi groups that entered Syria illegally ‘to help Islamic State.’ In reality, however, Turkey brought in 350 Islamist rebels to stop the Syrian army from advancing in the direction of the strategic border town of Tal Rifat.
HNG, the Sunni umbrella organization of the Syrian opposition, endorsed the Turkish-Saudi intervention in Syria Monday.
“The Turkish intervention and the ground operation announced by Saudi Arabia are parts of the international coalition’s operation to fight terrorism and is not related to the opposition plan to oust (President Bashar) Assad. We do not wish to see foreign troops on our land,” a spokesman for the Sunni opposition told the Russian news outlet Sputnik