assessments

Syria: New Faces in an Old Conflict

7 MINS READDec 24, 2015 | 09:15 GMT
Syria Draws More International Involvement
(ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images)
A rebel fighter looks on as smoke billows in the background following a reported air strike by Syrian government forces on Dec. 17 in the rebel-held region of Eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus.
Forecast Highlights

  • The Saudis and their allies will step up their involvement in the Syrian conflict.
  • The differing goals and interests of the war's participants will continue undermining the fight against the Islamic State and raising the risk of the conflict worsening.
  • An effective negotiated solution to the Syrian civil war will remain the greatest threat to the Islamic State. 

An end to the Syrian conflict is nowhere in sight, and more countries are being drawn into the fray. Responding to U.S. pressure and keen to have more influence on the direction of the Syrian civil war, the Saudis are attempting to coordinate a deployment of troops on the ground in Syria alongside their allies.

Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced the creation of an Islamic military coalition during a surprise news conference in the early hours of Dec. 15 in Riyadh. The coalition, consisting of 34 countries, seeks to coordinate anti-terrorism operations against groups like the Islamic State. Later that day, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said the deployment of ground troops, especially special operations forces, to fight the Islamic State is still a possibility. These announcements follow a Nov. 30 statement from the United Arab Emirates, which said it is willing to participate in any international effort demanding a ground intervention to fight terrorism.

Several other states — most notably, the United States and Turkey — also want to see the deployment of Arab forces in Syria. Under fire for a perceived lack of progress in the war against the Islamic State, the White House is keen to draw additional forces into the region. The United States has already called on its NATO allies, including Italy and Germany, to step up their contributions to the fight. However, the Pentagon is especially eager to see greater regional involvement, principally in terms of ground forces, as it tries to avoid further entangling itself in risky ground wars in the Middle East.

For Ankara, the addition of Arab forces to the mix would be a welcome development because it would help legitimize Turkey's involvement in Syria in the eyes of Arab neighbors that have accused it of neo-Ottoman designs in the region. The Turks are also deeply concerned by the enhanced Russian and Iranian presence in Syria and thus seek additional cover in operations that involve a wider international coalition.

A Force Divided

Nevertheless, as Arab states become more involved in the Syrian civil war, they could undermine any attempt at a united front against the Islamic State in Syria. For one thing, the announced Islamic anti-terrorism coalition appears far from united. Officials in Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan have already denied accepting an invitation to join the coalition. Additionally, the coalition membership list bears some glaring omissions, including major Islamic countries such as Iran as well as Syria itself.

The raging war between the Syrian government and the rebels has consistently undermined the global effort against the Islamic State, often superseding the fight against the Islamic State in terms of effort and support from the main backers of both sides. These divisions have culminated in a tense standoff in northern Aleppo, where heavy Russian deployments and operations have effectively blocked a planned Turkish-American operation against the Islamic State in the Azaz corridor. Moreover, Iran has supported Damascus by warning against any foreign intervention in Syria without the direct invitation of, and coordination with, the Syrian government. For Tehran, the presence of Saudi forces on the ground in Syria would be particularly alarming. Given that Iran is already a significant contributor of forces to the conflict on the side of the Syrian government, the risk of it clashing with the Saudi and allied forces will significantly increase.

Additionally, hostilities between the Turks and the Kurdish People's Protection Units just across the border in Syria further undermines the prospects of a joint effort against the Islamic State. To the east of the Euphrates in Syria, where the United States has recently deployed some 50 special operations forces to assist the Syrian Democratic Forces in their drive toward Raqqa, the deployment of more Arab forces could arouse suspicion within the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces. This is especially true given recent alleged Arab-Kurdish ethnic strife over key northern Syrian towns such as Tal Abyad.

There is also the question of whether the Saudis and their Gulf Cooperation Council partners would even be able to amass a significant force to deploy to Syria under the best circumstances. The Saudis and their Gulf allies are already heavily committed in Yemen, and although they would be able to deploy ground forces in smaller numbers, they would naturally look to their other key Arab allies for support. Egypt and Jordan are prime candidates — Egypt for its large and powerful army, and Jordan for its geographic position and well-trained forces. Indeed, Egypt and Jordan launched a new exercise Dec. 18 in Egypt with the express purpose of being ready for any joint mission to support stability and security in the region. Both states have also received ample economic and financial assistance from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states and are keen to maintain those lucrative ties.

However, given Cairo's own domestic rebellions and enmity with the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's natural position has been to side with the Syrian government in its war against the rebels, a position that has further frayed its relationship with Turkey. Egypt is also increasingly looking to strengthen its diplomatic and military ties with Russia, another power suspicious of any military operations carried out in Syria without coordination with Damascus. For instance, Stratfor has learned that the Egyptians are keen to avoid any role in Syria that helps lead to a wider negotiated solution merging the moderate rebel landscape with Syrian loyalist forces.

The Saudis are working hard to change these circumstances and align Egypt's position with their own. Through the Egyptian-Saudi Coordination Council, the Saudis have tightened relations with Egypt through a number of economic projects and are looking to repair Egyptian-Turkish ties with a joint meeting of the three states set for Jan. 5.

Jordan, on the other hand, has operated more closely with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United States in their efforts to bolster the rebels in Syria, particularly the Free Syrian Army rebels of the southern front. However, the Jordanians have been careful and measured (to the frustration of the rebels) in their support as Amman continues to fear a sudden and destabilizing collapse of the Syrian government, which could give extremist forces opportunities to act out amid the chaos.

The wildly divergent goals and interests of regional and global actors continue to play out in the Syrian civil war, and while more nations look to ramp up their contributions against the menace of the Islamic State, their disparate positions will continue to undermine the broader effort. Core participants in the conflict are fixated primarily on enemies other than the Islamic State. The overwhelming focus of the rebels and the Syrian government remains on each other, even as both continue to fight the terrorist group. Most Russian airstrikes continue to hit rebel forces other than the Islamic State, Turkey's primary combat operations are currently geared against the Kurdistan Workers' Party, and Iran's principal operations in southern Aleppo face off against units of the Free Syrian Army and the Islamist groups of Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra. In this light, though any additional force against the Islamic State could increase the pressure against it, the greatest threat to the extremist group is an effective negotiated solution to the Syrian civil war, however unlikely it may be at the moment.

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