Will Saudi Arabia be sucked into Syria?

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Story highlights

  • Saudi Arabia, now leading the biggest war games exercise in the Gulf, sees threats across its borders
  • Riyadh believes the continuing conflict in Syria has long term consequences for the region
  • Saudi ministers say it will only commit ground troops as part of a coalition

Faisal Al Yafai is chief columnist of The National newspaper and can be followed on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)To understand Northern Thunder, the biggest war games exercise in the Middle East, which is taking place this month, you have to start much further north -- above the Arctic Circle. So dangerous has the Syrian civil war become, and so desperate the millions of people displaced by it, that thousands are trekking, often on foot, through some of the most desolate regions of Russia and Sweden, simply to reach safety.

Europeans have their own reactions to this influx of men, women and children. But viewed from the Middle East, this vast movement of humanity is the inevitable consequence of neglecting the Syrian civil war. The conflict has been burning for five years -- and to the Middle East's major powers, particularly Saudi Arabia and Turkey, it is inconceivable for the region that it could burn for five more.
Sandwiched in the center of the Middle East, Saudi Arabia sees threats across three of its borders. To the east is Iran, still interfering in the affairs of other countries. To the south, Yemen, now the site of a Saudi-led coalition to push back the Houthi rebels. And to the north is Iraq and Syria, both deeply unstable. Small wonder then that Saudi Arabia, rather than waiting for events to reach it, wants to rapidly reshape the reality of the Syrian conflict.
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To Riyadh, Syria is not "someone else's civil war", as Barack Obama once dismissively called it. If in Washington or London, or even Moscow, the Syrian civil war seems far away, then in the Middle East, and particularly for the Gulf states, Syria is the most pressing issue of the moment.
Northern Thunder, then, is one expression of something which has happened several times during the Syrian conflict: a re-calibration by Saudi Arabia about where to make alliances and which political outcomes are acceptable.
The bloodshed in Syria has overturned some of the long-standing certainties of the region. Even the Iraq war of 2003, a devastating and long-running conflict, was broadly contained within the country's borders. Syria's conflict has burst beyond its own.
The upheaval has given a new lease of life to jihadism. The chaos in northern Syria has allowed ISIS a safe space to gather, organize and train its recruits, before dispatching them to cities around the Middle East and Europe. Without an end to the war, there will be no genuine end to the mutations of jihadism, of which ISIS is merely one incarnation.
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Amid this new Middle East, Riyadh has changed its historically political conservative approach.Saudi relations with Syria have rarely been close since Bashar al-Assad became president in 2000. They were particularly strained after the murder of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, which was blamed at the time on Damascus. Hariri, who held joint Lebanese and Saudi citizenship, was close to the kingdom's ruling family, and relations took years to rebuild. It was only in 2009 that al-Assad was invited to Riyadh and King Abdullah visited Damascus, signaling a rapprochement.
But the Syrian uprising changed that relationship fundamentally. Within a few months, King Abdullah issued an unusually blunt public message against the Assad regime, demanding an end to "the killing-machine" and withdrawing the kingdom's ambassador.
Saudi Arabia has been extremely clear in its views on the conflict. When Adel Al Jubeir, Saudi's foreign minister, spoke to CNN's Christiane Amanpour, he was unequivocal: "There are two ways to resolve Syria -- and they both involve the removal of Bashar al-Assad. One way is a political process... the other alternative is by force."
Saudi Arabia's end goal is clear -- and the path to that goal depends on how other countries act. If Russia is determined to back the al-Assad regime, or the U.S. is unwilling to step up its diplomatic efforts, then there may be no real peace process to speak of. In that case, as Al Jubeir said, Assad "will be removed by force".
The kingdom has said it will only commit ground troops as part of a coalition. And while Turkey has displayed a willingness to use military force -- shooting down a Russian fighter jet and shelling Kurdish YPG positions inside Syria -- it has no appetite to go it alone either. Istanbul and Ankara have both suffered terrorist attacks the past few months. The Turks see in Saudi an ally who also wants a stable resolution to the Syrian war.
But neither country may have to go it alone: that is the whole idea behind the ongoing military exercises, which involve land, air and naval forces from 20 countries, from Egypt and Sudan to Pakistan and Malaysia. Northern Thunder is about showing, to adversaries in the region and a watching world beyond, that Saudi Arabia has the military capacity, the political will, and, crucially, the alliances to defend itself in any eventuality, both as a demonstration and as preparation.
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Nobody wants to enter a civil war, certainly not one as complex as Syria's. But without a credible peace process there currently appears to be only one outcome -- and that is the return of the al-Assad regime, backed by Russian military might, to control the entirety of Syria.
Al-Assad himself, speaking last week, made clear that he sees that as a goal -- even if it takes "a long time". Anyone familiar with his regime -- and that of his father Hafez before him -- will recognize that as a recipe for the drawn-out suppression of the population and the murder of opponents. To al-Assad, it appears the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Syrians is merely the beginning.
That is not a position that Saudi Arabia can credibly accept, neither for itself nor the rest of the region. The kingdom has recognized that a Middle East without a stable Syria is a Middle East without stability. There is still the possibility of a negotiated settlement. But after Saudi Arabia's decision to intervene in Yemen, the possibility that the kingdom will use military force if needed cannot be ruled out.
Every day that peace talks fail to be reconvened brings Saudi and Turkey closer to involvement. For Riyadh and Ankara, Syria cannot merely be someone else's civil war.