February 15, 2016 | Policy Brief

Gulf States Pledge Forces for Syria, but Challenges Remain

February 15, 2016 | Policy Brief

Gulf States Pledge Forces for Syria, but Challenges Remain

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates made new military commitments this week at a defense summit in Brussels, agreeing to deploy special forces and increase airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria. The pledges came in response to a concerted effort by U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter for an increased Gulf contribution to the anti-IS coalition.

However, when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain said this month that they were prepared to deploy ground troops to Syria, it seemed they were offering the Obama administration the one thing it did not want: boots on the ground led by an American presence. Indeed, both the Saudis and Emiratis seemed to suggest that their offer of ground troops was conditional upon American leadership.  

The State Department confirmed this concern last week, reiterating that there has been “absolutely no change” to President Obama’s “intention not to have a large U.S. military footprint on the ground.” Carter himself appeared to be pushing the Gulf states to think beyond ground forces, insisting that there are “lots of different ways” they can contribute to the fight.

There is also reason to question whether the Gulf states’ militaries are up to the task of an expanded role in Syria, given the ongoing Saudi-led operations against Iran-backed insurgents in Yemen. Those operations have largely stalled, with the Saudi-led coalition struggling to extend its control past the southern Yemeni city of Taiz. It seems the Saudi-led coalition has yet to launch a single airstrike against al-Qaeda in the country, even though Riyadh already enjoys air superiority there and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been operating more openly than ever before.  

In Syria, the Gulf Arab states are faring no better. Gulf airstrikes there dropped off precipitously after the intervention in Yemen began just under a year ago. In August, for example, Arab air forces participated in fewer than 1 percent of all strikes in Syria. On Tuesday, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Vincent Stewart told Congress that he doubted Saudi forces would perform well in Syria and that he expected the UAE would struggle to perform on a second battlefield at the same time as the war in Yemen.

There is also a broader question of strategy. The U.S.-led mission to which Saudi Arabia and the UAE are contributing is intended to combat the Islamic State but does nothing to counter the Bashar al-Assad regime, which has been crushing Saudi-backed rebels in Syria thanks to support from Russia and Iran. The Gulf states will therefore continue to have unaddressed concerns in Syria so long as Washington refuses to broaden its military action to confront the Assad regime and to push back directly against aggression by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Syria and beyond.  

While many challenges remain, Carter’s concerted campaign to elicit greater Gulf Arab contributions against the Islamic State may be starting to bear fruit. While Washington steers the Saudis and Emiratis away from a push for large ground forces, it will seek to cash in on their pledges to deploy special forces and boost airstrikes in Syria. Carter also explored other potential steps with the Saudis on Thursday, including training Iraqi police and armed forces, as well as “logistics support, sustainment, and rebuilding of a kind that is going to have to go on [in the Iraqi city of] Ramadi.”

If these Gulf states are serious, it could represent a constructive measure in the war against the Islamic State and a positive step in U.S.-GCC relations. The onus is now on Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to show how substantial their latest commitments in Syria will be.

David Andrew Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAWeinberg