Lots of cats talk about a magical coalition of Sunni combat cats from Sunni nation states on the ground attacking Sunni ISIS/ISIL/IS
Face it - that is a myth.
Aside from the sorry fact that Arab League militaries are only good at tormenting girls or defeating unarmed protesters - Saudi Arabia has in fact done almost nothing against Daesh. Her efforts are fighting a tribal rebellion in Yemen and into overthrowing Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
The Saudis announced a broad military coalition against regional terrorism in December, a proposal that seemed to disappear as suddenly as it surfaced. That might be a sign of how seriously to take the kingdom’s suggestion last week that it would send ground forces if the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State deploys troops to Syria.
To be fair, Saudi Arabia has acted in some uncharacteristically bold ways since King Salman ascended the throne last January: It is waging war against the Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen; it executed numerous Sunni and Shiite prisoners early this year, including a prominent Shiite cleric whose death sparked protests; and it has shown a willingness to stand firm against Iran and to risk Western ire by supporting radical Sunni groups against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Saudis have made a point of regional engagement in recent months.
The real question about Saudi ground troops is whether a substantial number of them would help or hurt the battle against jihadis.
So far, the fight to counter ISIS has been a largely international effort. The Saudis are contributing funds and equipment to Syrian rebels, but the kingdom and other Arab states have joined in airstrikes only episodically. The U.S. and its European allies have carried out the vast majority.
Islamic State’s aims may be global, but right now it is predominantly a Mideast plague. Greater commitment by the Saudis, such as a pledge to send ground forces, would signal needed regional buy-in. It would suggest that Sunnis Arabs are willing and able to confront the extremists in their midst. If ISIS is ever to be conclusively defeated, it will need to be taken down not just on the battlefield but also by Arab efforts to delegitimize the extremists in mosques, universities, and in the media. Such a change in mind-set is critical to the effort, though it will be difficult to achieve.
Meanwhile, Saudi forces are bogged down in Yemen in a costly campaign against the Houthis that Riyadh is not prepared to abandon. It is doubtful that the kingdom would deploy troops to Syria unless they were part of a broader Gulf or U.S. effort. And if Saudi troops were sent to Syria, what if they didn’t perform well? The struggle against ISIS would be damaged by the jihadis publicly defeating Arab-state Sunni forces, particularly ones backed by the West. Pictures of Saudis taken prisoner by ISIS and subjected to the sorts of torture inflicted on a Jordanian pilot and others last year would set back the fight against ISIS, not advance it.
The Saudis have long been more concerned about removing Iranian ally Bashar Assad from power in Syria than they have been about directly fighting ISIS. Saudi leaders would be bitterly criticized at home if they deployed forces and were not seen as taking on the Assad regime, which has been viewed by Saudis and other Sunni Muslims as killing innocent Sunnis. Without a specific effort against al Assad, who has been buoyed by Iranian and Russian support, Saudi Arabia would be accused of directly helping his ally Iran.
As compelling as the idea of large numbers of Saudi ground forces fighting ISIS may seem, this is probably an idea whose time has not yet come.