On February 4, 2016, Saudi Gen. Ahmed Al-'Asiri, spokesman for the Saudi-led Arab Coalition and advisor to the Saudi defense minister, announced that his country was willing to participate in any ground operation against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, as part of the U.S.-led international counterterrorism coalition. The following day, CNN cited "two Saudi sources intimately familiar with the military training programs drawn up by Saudi Arabia as part of its preparation to combat ISIS in Syria" as saying that some 150,000 soldiers from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan, and Jordan are currently being trained in Saudi Arabia to carry out this mission.
These statements and reports come on the heels of recent successes by the Syrian regime and its allies in capturing widespread territory in the northern Aleppo region, in Al-Latakia, and in Deraa from the rebels, as well as its march on the Turkish border in order to complete its siege of Aleppo. This is in addition to the collapse of the Geneva peace talks between the regime and the opposition.
The Syrian regime's reaction to the Saudi announcement and to these reports consisted primarily of threats and mockery. Syrian regime officials did not dismiss the statements, and warned the Saudis that any ground incursion without the regime's consent would be seen as aggression and be met with a harsh response from the regime and its allies, who would send the foreign fighters home in coffins. On the other hand, some called the reports a joke, arguing that the Saudis were too cowardly to launch a ground assault; they added that such talk was aimed primarily at boosting the morale of the rebels and obscuring the successes of the regime's military.
Regime spokesmen and its media mouthpieces stressed that the U.S. had the final say in a Turkish-Saudi decision to go ahead with a ground operation in Syria, and that it would be held responsible for such a move. Officials and the pro-government media were, however, divided on whether the U.S. would actually greenlight such an operation.
This report will review the various reactions by Syrian regime officials, headed by President Assad, as well as by pro-regime Syrian writers, to the Saudi announcement of its willingness to dispatch ground troops to Syria.
Saudi Gen. Ahmed Al-'Asiri (Image: English.aawsat.com)
President Assad: Saudi Ground Operation In Syria Will Not Be A Cakewalk And Will Encounter Resistance
Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad said that he did not rule out the possibility of a Saudi ground operation in Syria, but warned that any such action would trigger a Syrian response. Interviewed by AFP, he said: "Logically, intervention is not possible, but sometimes reality is at odds with logic, particularly when there are irrational people leading a certain state. That's why I don't rule [the possibility] out... The same applies to Saudi Arabia. The collapse of the terrorists in Syria is a collapse of their [the Saudis'] policies. I tell you that this process is surely not going to be easy for them, and we will certainly confront it."
Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad (Image: Syrianews.cc)
Foreign Minister: U.S. Behind Idea Of Ground Intervention In Syria; We Will Oppose Any Such Intervention And Send Aggressors Home In Coffins
Syrian Foreign Minister Al-Mu'allem took the reports of the Saudi announcement seriously, and said that it was the U.S. that was behind the idea of a Saudi-Turkish ground intervention in Syria. At a February 6, 2016 press conference, he called the idea illogical, threatened that any intervention without the consent of the Syrian government would be considered aggression, and added that anyone taking part in such aggression would return in a coffin. He said: "These [Saudi] statements have a basis. Over a month ago, American think tanks [spoke of this], and U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter called for establishing a ground force, under the slogan of fighting ISIS - because the U.S. does not want to cooperate with the Syrian army, which is fighting the terrorist organization. It is natural for Saudi Arabia to answer this call... But what has Saudi Arabia done in Yemen? Was it successful? It destroyed it, bombing every target two or three times, and leaving nothing standing. Did the Yemenis surrender? This decision [announcing an imminent ground incursion] undoubtedly indicates that Saudi Arabia is fulfilling the American desire...
"The visits to Riyadh by [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, and later by his prime minister [Ahmet Davutoglu] and his army chief of staff, indicate that something is brewing with U.S. sponsorship... Any ground intervention on Syrian soil without the consent of the Syrian government constitutes aggression - and aggression must be resisted; resistance is mandatory for all Syrian citizens... Any aggressor will return to his country in a wooden box... We are full of eagerness [to uphold] Syrian sovereignty, the integrity of [Syrian] lands, and its independence, and to purge it of the stain of terrorism. We will send back anyone who attacks Syria in wooden boxes, whether [he is] Turkish, Saudi, or otherwise. We are a sovereign country, and we will resist any attempt to damage our sovereignty..."
Walid Al-Mu'allem (Image: SANA News Agency, Syria, February 6, 2016)
Syrian Information Minister 'Omran Al-Zoubi told Reuters: "Even thinking about this is a big adventure and gamble, the results of which I don't believe Saudi [Arabia] can bear, neither for its army or its internal situation."
Advisor To President Assad: Syria And Its Allies Have Options For Responding; This Is A Failed Attempt At "Boosting The Morale Of The Terrorists"
Some Syrian officials threatened that Syria would respond harshly, while at the same time arguing that the Saudi statements were empty. President Assad's political and media advisor Bouthaina Sha'aban told Iran's Al-'Alam TV on February 9, 2016, "We do not fear the dispatch of Arab forces to Syria," and added that "[all] options are open to Damascus and its allies to resist this intervention." She also claimed that "the talk of dispatching Saudi forces to Syria was aimed [solely] at boosting the morale of the terrorists and to fool people into thinking that it is they [i.e. the Saudis] who have the power..." She continued: "The dissemination of these intimidating statements, whether by Saudi Arabia or by Turkey, is meant to partially obscure the victories of the Syrian army, following the abject defeats suffered by the terrorists on the ground and following the failure at Geneva."
Bouthaina Sha'aban (Image: Alalam.ir, February 9, 2016)
Similar statements were made by Bashar Al-Ja'afari, Syrian representative to the UN and head of the Syrian delegation to the Geneva talks. In a February 9 interview with Hizbullah's Al-Manar TV, he warned that the Syrian response to any incursion would be harsh, but downplayed the Saudi statements, stating that at this time the U.S. had not approved such an operation and that therefore they were "empty words." Ja'afari said: "The [recent] statements by the Saudis were preceded some time ago by a statement by their representative to the [UN] Security Council, who threatened that Saudi Arabia sought to do in Syria what it had done in Yemen. At that time, we replied that these were the statements of a political amateur, and of people who do not understand the meaning of their words... Let them first defeat the resistance against the Saudi occupier in Yemen; then they can turn to dealing with Syria, and we will deal with them as they deserve...
"They [are acting] as if they are afflicted with idiocy, or with early-stage Alzheimer's; they think that entering or confronting Syria is a walk in the park. Someone needs to remind them that we have waged lengthy wars with Israel, and that our army, leadership, government, and people are strong...
"The Saudi and Qatari madness is well known, and the madness of Erdogan may be even worse than that of the Saudis. But when they are united and placed in the service of the main puppeteer - the American master - this kind of tripartite insanity cannot set forth on adventures in the region against Syria without a green light from the U.S., and there is currently no [such green light]. Therefore, the Saudi statements are empty words and fantasies that will sooner or later boomerang on them. Syria is not a walk in the park, not for the Saudis nor for anyone else."
Bashar Al-Ja'afari (Image: SANA News Agency, Syria, February 10, 2016)
Writers In Regime Dailies: Saudi Statement On Dispatching Ground Forces To Syria Is A Joke
Basma Hamed, a columnist for the daily Al-Watan, which is close to the regime, wrote that the Syrian regime and its allies consider the Saudi announcement of its willingness to send ground troops to be a joke. She warned that even if Saudi Arabia did end up doing so, it would be unable to change the situation on the ground in favor of the rebels, and would be met with a direct response of the Syrian regime and its allies, chiefly Russia, who would consider it a violation of international law. She wrote: "The Saudi threats of a ground incursion into Syria, which comes at the same time as a Turkish military buildup on the border... is not taken seriously by the Moscow axis, and is treated as a pure political joke...
"In truth, the Saudis' next move is hard to anticipate, but the possibility that the Saudis and Turks would dare make a stupid new move must not be dismissed, in light of news leaked by CNN regarding the training of a 150,000-strong multinational force by the Saudi regime for the purpose of a ground incursion into Syria.
"However, these two allies' chance of bringing about a change that will be in their favor is practically nil, because of the swift advances of the Syrian army and its allies, and their imminent liberation of Aleppo... The entry of any ground force [into Syria] without the consent of the Syrian side will be seen by Moscow as a violation of international law and of state sovereignty, and would necessarily encounter a direct response by Damascus' allies..."
Similarly, 'Izzat Shitawi, a columnist for the daily Al-Thawra, also close to the regime, wrote: "[The possibility] that Saudi Arabia will invade Syria under the banner of the fight against terrorism is a joke... Iran has said [this], and we, as Syrians, have said even more: Today, our steadfast position and battles have changed the outlook of the occupants of the White House. Washington threatened to deliver a military blow [to Syria] and ran away; how, then, can this Saudi Bedouin [King Salman], who is caught between his quagmire in Yemen and his involvement in supporting the caliph [ISIS leader Al-Baghdadi] and the Emir of Jabhat Al-Nusra, [dare] to loudly proclaim a ground invasion of Syria, when he has sunk so low that his current political bankruptcy crises and his future economic bankruptcy [threaten] to dethrone him [?]..."
'Al-Thawra' Columnist: The Saudis Are Cowards Who Will Never Send Ground Troops To Syria
Muhriz Al-'Ali, also an Al-Thawra columnist, questioned the "cowardly" Saudis' determination to make good on their threats: "The Saudis have failed to actualize their illusions and to topple the Syrian regime by means of spreading terrorism and aiding the takfiri organizations, supplying all the means of killing and destruction that they require. As a result, they are now hysterical and hesitant regarding their policy and responses. While they have stated that they are willing to intervene militarily in Syria to compensate for their losses on the ground, this pushes them to the edge of the abyss; this aggressive trend will be enough to toss their political future into the dustbin of history. This is because they have neither brains nor wisdom, and because their judgment vis-a-vis developments in the region is faulty...
"The Saudis are too cowardly to make good on their empty threats, and if they [eventually do] carry out such a foolish [act], they will be pounding yet another nail in the coffin of their crumbling kingdom, thus ridding the world of their evil and terrorism."
'Al-Watan' Daily: Saudi Offer Will Not Receive The West's Blessing And Will Encounter Many Obstacles
An article in the daily Al-Watan, also close to the regime, doubted that the Saudi offer to dispatch ground troops to Syria would be welcomed by the West. It stated: "It does not appear that the plan to dispatch ground forces from countries in the 'Islamic military antiterrorism coalition' - the plan that Saudi Crown Prince and Defense Minister Emir Muhammad bin Salman intends to present to the international coalition to combat ISIS in the coming days - will receive the support of all Saudi Arabia's allies. It will likely encounter many obstacles, the main one being the deep crisis of confidence in the Turkish-Saudi-U.S. triangle." The article added that this crisis of confidence is rooted in the fact that the U.S. uses the forces of Turkey's rivals, the Kurds, to fight ISIS, and also in reservations within the Gulf Cooperation Council about a Turkish role.
Columnists: The U.S. Holds All The Keys
Foreign Minister Mu'allem's argument that the U.S. was behind the Saudi announcement was also expressed in articles in the pro-regime official press. Al-Watan columnist Firas 'Aziz Dib stated that the Saudis had made the announcement about sending ground troops to Syria only after it consulted with the U.S., and that only the U.S. had the power to stop it. This initiative would not be welcome in the West, he wrote, but added that if it did indeed come to pass, the Syrian regime's response would be harsh indeed:
"...Those who think that Saudi Arabia's call was impulsive or done without consulting the U.S. are mistaken. What we can say for now is that this move... was certainly not made with the knowledge of the other NATO countries... In principle, we agree that if such forces are dispatched, it would certainly be without consulting or coordinating with the Syrian government. Therefore, any such intervention, if it happens, will be illegitimate, and the Syrian leadership will then be entitled to take all steps to respond to such aggression...
"Al-Mu'allem spoke yesterday on 'resisting aggression.' Some speak of 'the means of Syrian response' to such aggression, especially since the strategic weapon in which the Syrians take pride - missiles - have not been harmed like other aerial defense means. Will the Saudis or the Turks be capable of withstanding the repercussions of such events and responses? ...
"We must recognize that the U.S. currently holds all the keys. It will either stop this madness or declare its support for it and its participation in events. Then it can either march towards all-out world war - or it may be [a mere] formality, connected to agreements with the Russians, and limited to fighting ISIS..."
Al-Thawra columnist Nasser Mundhir explained that if Saudi Arabia and Turkey did dispatch ground troops to Syria, they would do so in accordance with American and Western guidelines: "The withdrawal of terrorist organizations - which are considered bargaining chips for negotiations by the aggressive camp - on several fronts, especially in northern Syria, cause this alignment to lean towards escalation, and to consider new military gambles that have already caused losses for the leaders of the aggression when they attempted similar gambles in the past.
"However, the terrorist urges of Erdogan and his colleagues in the Saudi regime and the Qatari emirate could motivate this criminal trio to carry out additional foolish [acts] to protect their terrorism on the ground, while obeying American and Western orders - such as the current talk of Turkish preparation for military intervention in Syria, and the Saudi talk of their willingness to also participate in a ground operation on the pretext of fighting ISIS..."
 Arabic.cnn.com, February 6, 2016.
 Afp.com, February 12, 2016.
 SANA News Agency (Syria), February 6, 2016.
 Reuters.com, February 10, 2016.
 Alalam.ir, February 9, 2016.
 Champress.net, February 10, 2016.
 Al-Watan (Syria), February 8, 2016.
 Referring to President Obama's statement that use of chemical weapons was a red line and his implicit threats to carry out military action against the Assad regime following the chemical attack on Ghouta in 2013. Eventually, the U.S. agreed to a Russian offer to desist from such punitive action in return for the destruction of the Syrian regime's chemical weapons stockpiles.
 Al-Thawra (Syria), February 8, 2016.
 Al-Thawra (Syria), February 8, 2016.
 Al-Watan (Syria), February 8, 2016.
 Al-Watan (Syria), February 7, 2016.
 Al-Thawra (Syria), February 7, 2016.