24.02.2016 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

The US is Pulling the ‘Arabian String’

435354544545While Russia and Saudi Arabia may have reached some sort of understanding regarding the production of oil, the Syrian question remains unresolved and it is likely to remain so unless the ‘production’ of proxy groups is absolutely cut down to zero. Against the Syrian forces’ successful operations against such groups, the managers of the ‘industry’ of proxy terror groups have been forced into increasing the production, or at least buttressing what is already out there and fighting for the ‘managers.’ As such, the Saudi intention to send ground troops to Syria makes perfect sense when considered against this background. However, it is equally obvious that the House of Saud cannot take such a decision on its own. Not only does it lack the required military capacity to make a direct intervention on its own, but also the political will to face the combined forces of Iran, Russia and Syria.

The House of Saud, therefore, needs an external mentor to provide the necessary ‘human capital’ to the war they themselves had started almost five years ago. It was, therefore, not so surprising to see Saudia’s foreign minister stating that the ‘deployment of Saudi troops to Syria is up to the United States.’

The House of Saud’s this particular decision is rooted in the distance it has created between itself and Russia. Contrary to the hopes for gradual development of Russia-Saudia relations into a ‘sound partnership’, if not a strategic alliance, recent developments have clearly shown that the House of Saud continues to remain a pawn for the United States in the latter’s ‘grand strategy for the 21st century.’

The distance that the House of Saud has created became more than evident when on last Sunday (14-02-2016) the Saudi Foreign Ministry pointedly rebutted an earlier reported statement by a top Kremlin foreign-policy aide to President Putin to the effect that King Salman is due to visit Russia in mid-March.

Equally, on Sunday, in a sharp remark, Saudi Foreign Minister rebuked the Kremlin for its policies in Syria. Jubeir said that Russia’s efforts to save Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad are doomed to fail and he urged Moscow to “end its air operations against the moderate Syrian opposition.” The Saudi calculus is not difficult to understand. For one thing, Saudi Arabia aims to erode, in league with Turkey and the U.S—their chief mentor–, Russia’s monopoly over military operations against terror groups in Syria.

This reversal of the Saudia’s policy vis-à-vis Russia—a policy that came to life during the Saudi deputy crown prince’s visits to Russia in 2015—is also deeply rooted in the realization that an alliance with Russia would not help them reduce Iran’s influence in Syria. This realization has, more than any other thing, went a long way in convincing the Saudi strategists to ‘part ways’ with Russia. However, the material source of this realization is not Russia’s refusal to work with Saudi Arabia, but Saudi Arabia’s own failure in achieving the cardinal objective of its short-lived respite with Russia i.e., push a wedge between Russia and Iran.

On the other hand, it is also becoming evident yet again that the House of Saud’s tilt towards the U.S. is increasing. Jubeir’s critical remarks about Russia had followed his visit to the U.S. and the meeting between the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and the U.S. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter in Brussels.

Now wonder, the House of Saud’s current position bears stark similarities to that of the U.S. and its allies, who have relentlessly been propagating against Russia’s legitimate operations in Syria. This propaganda has become even more intense during the last few days or so. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called the Russian air strikes “appalling” and “horrific.” Following the same sort of logic, the U.S. Secretary of State implicitly contended that Russia is committing “war crimes.”

The U.S.’ position with regard to resolution of the conflict in Syria and Russian operations is, nonetheless, rooted in the ‘war games’ the U.S. has itself tacitly initiated and continues to earn profit from. No wonder, Saudi Arabia’s offer to supply ground troops was ‘welcomed’ by the United States. All the fighter-jets (F-15 jets) that the House of Saud has committed to the war in Syria and most of the weapons that the Saudi troops have been using in Yemen and would possibly use in Syria are US-made. The wars in Yemen and Syria are being fought amidst billion dollar defence-deals between Saudi Arabia, as also other Gulf States, and the U.S.

The political economy of war, therefore, suits the U.S. and explains its dual position. For instance, the U.S. apparently agrees to Russia on the need to stop military operations in Syria and finding a peaceful solution to the country’s crisis, but in practice, allows Saudi Arabia to use Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base, which is currently under the US Air Force’s control. As a result, Saudi Arabia and Turkey cannot use this air base without agreement of the United States and cannot take independent measures in this regard.

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia’s military spokesman – who imitates the jargon used by American officials – is currently speaking about the Plan B and wants to make others believe that the Plan A for the overthrow of Assad has not been successful and that the Saudis have now launched the Plan B and implementation of the Plan B needs intervention of ground forces to topple Assad.

The hypothetical-plan-shift only reflects how Saudia Arabia has, quite conveniently though, started to pull itself away from Russia; while the reason for seemingly strangulated looking US-Saudi relations, that is the US-Iran nuke deal, remains very much intact. Although no such news has appeared, the possibility of Saudia and the U.S. reaching an actual understanding regarding the extent of ‘freedom’ Iran would enjoy under the deal cannot be set aside.

In this context, the price the U.S. is ready to pay for having Saudia and Turkey on its side vis-à-vis Russia is allowing both of the Mid-Eastern behemoths to play their own ‘war-games’ in Syria and Iraq against Iran, as also against Russia. The first stage of this ‘game’ is expression of intention to launch a ground invasion of Syria. This announcement was followed by joint military exercises that included 20 countries from across the Muslim world.

We cannot be certain of whether some of the members of these exercise would actually send troops to Syria. However, if such a scenario takes place ever in any shape, the House of Saud will be initiating a long war of attrition that may let lose forces of destruction at a far greater level than what we have today in the Middle East. A long of war attrition fought with the help of U.S. made weapons would certainly boost the U.S. military-industrial complex’s profits.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.