If there were any naive hopes that the latest incarnation of the United Nations-sponsored Syrian peace talks would move the conflict closer to a resolution, they were quickly put to rest with the announcement that Saudi Arabia was seriously considering deploying ground troops into Syria.
There should be no doubt that all major parties to the Syrian conflict remain committed to a military solution and that the political process is a cruel facade that offers Syrians no reprieve from this catastrophe.
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Saudi Arabia’s potential intervention should be understood in this context as a desperate measure to reverse the dramatic military gains brought about by Russia’s intervention into the Syrian conflict.
In recent months, the military stalemate that defined the Syrian conflict after 2013 was broken by the unrelenting onslaught by the Russian military.
Russian aerial bombardment allowed regime-aligned groups to force rebel retreats and to capture key transport and supply corridors throughout the country, thus altering the battlefield dynamics.
Saudi Arabia’s threatened intervention is not about targeting ISIL but rather about regaining the political positioning and battlefield strength that was lost during the Russian intervention.
Having bombed the rebel groups into near submission and with regime-aligned forces on the verge of recapturing Aleppo and the last remaining rebel strongholds in Northern Syria, the Russian intervention has ensured that the rebel groups will have limited capacity to shape the coming months of the conflict, whether on the battlefield or on the negotiation table.
Today, the Syrian conflict is congealing in the Northern parts of the country with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Kurdish forces, and regime-aligned groups all converging around the remaining rebel-held areas.
And this is precisely what the Russian intervention was always about -to eliminate the geographic and political space between ISIL and the Syrian regime, and to present the international community with this most abominable of options for the future of Syria: Either ISIL or the Syrian regime.
Degraded rebel capacity on the battlefield and a scattered, incoherent, and ineffectual political opposition in the negotiating room is precisely the recipe for resolution that the Russian intervention sought to engender.
Thus far, they have been mightily successful in these aims. Battlefield advances have corresponded to political victories as well.
The slow gravitation of the United States and Europe to the Russian perspective of the conflict and the declaration by Carla Del Ponte, the UN Commission of Inquiry member, that the Russian intervention was a “good thing” , underscores the impacts of the Russian intervention and how far it has tilted the political tide in favour of the Syrian regime and its allied forces.
Saudi Arabia’s threatened intervention is not about targeting ISIL – which has become a convenient target for everyone in the world – but rather about regaining the political positioning and battlefield strength that was lost during the Russian intervention.
It is an acknowledgment of the disastrous impacts that territorial contraction has had on the armed groups Saudi Arabia supports, and on the ability of these groups to withstand further bombardment.
For Saudi Arabia, the dominant question today is how to reverse these losses and to reassert the rebel groups, and by extension the Kingdom, as major players in the Syrian conflict.
As we have clearly seen in the past few months, changes in the battlefield easily sway Western leaders political positions.
A Saudi intervention would, presumably, attempt to alter Western perceptions of the conflict and renew support for Saudi interests in Syria. Any Saudi intervention would no doubt require Western consent and indeed even military coordination.
Yet, this is extremely unlikely to ever develop as Western states seem unwilling to make further military commitments, let alone commitments that complicate efforts at reaching a political solution.
Recent Western diplomatic and political posturing suggests that they have given up on Syria and have accepted that the future will be shaped by Russian and Iranian designs for the country. The threat of military entanglement with Russia is a very real and serious one for Western states.
As such, they have clearly ceded the battlefield to Russia. Why, then, would they be interested in supporting a Saudi ground intervention? Notwithstanding the moral bankruptcy of the West on the Syrian conflict, there is simply no appetite in Western capitals for further military commitments.
This is a blessing for Russian designs in Syria. Militarily and politically, then, Saudi Arabia has emerged as an isolated player. It is nevertheless possible that in a situation in which Western states refuse to provide military support and in which regime-aligned forces remain very strong on the battlefield, Saudi Arabia would, in an act of extreme desperation, order a troop invasion.
It is no small claim to say that what happens next will shape the Syrian conflict in irreversible ways.
Samer Abboud is an associate professor of international studies at the University of Arcadia and author of Syria .