Saudi Arabia’s Brinkmanship In The Syrian War – Analysis


By Brandon Friedman*

Prince Khaled bin Sultan Al Saud, the co-commander of coalition forces during the 1990-1991 Gulf War, argues in his 1995 biography Desert Warrior that Israel took its “bomb out of the basement” during the war to convince the U.S. that it had to do more to stop Saddam’s “Scud” missile attacks on Israel, which were launched from mobile launchers. Prince Khaled believed Israel was using its military capabilities as much to pressure its ally, the U.S., as it was to frighten its enemies.[1] Whether this version of events tracks closely with the truth is perhaps less important than how the Saudis perceived it. Indeed it may be fair to say, based on recent events, that Saudi Arabia is now making this gambit, fact or fiction, part of its own tactical playbook.

On late Thursday night, February 11, Russia and the U.S., as leaders of the International Syrian Support Group (ISSG), signed a temporary ceasefire in Munich that is to be implemented in Syria within one week, and which is to allow humanitarian relief and a resumption of diplomatic negotiations in Geneva. Yet within a day of its announcement, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov assessed the chances of its implementation at 49 percent.[2] Fyodor Lukyanov, Chairman of the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, claimed that the “The deal’s dead, but it will live after two or three tries,” adding that perhaps it will be implemented after Aleppo is finished being retaken.[3]

Despite the agreed ceasefire, Russia continued bombing the opposition north of Aleppo on Friday and dispatched the Zelyony Dol, a patrol ship armed with Kalibr cruise missiles, from its Black Sea fleet to patrol the Mediterranean off of the Syrian coast.[4] Turkey announced it was preparing to send ground forces to support the U.S. led anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition in Syria,[5] and in the meantime initiated an aerial bombing campaign against the Kurds of the PYD/YPG in Syria that drew censure from U.S. officials.[6] The Saudis for their part were busy surveying Turkey’s Incirlik air base, to which they will be sending fighter jets in a renewed effort to support of the U.S. led anti-IS coalition in Syria.[7] The Saudis (along with the Emiratis, Qataris, and Bahrainis)[8] have also pledged to send their own ground forces to support the U.S. led anti-Islamic State coalition.[9] In response, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told a German newspaper that “The Americans and our Arab partners must think hard about this – do they want a permanent war? All sides must be forced to the negotiating table instead of sparking a new world war.”[10]

The Saudi announcement may represent an ironic success for the Obama administration, which since last summer has been trying to convince or goad its Saudi (and GCC) ally to “get in the game,” meaning join the fight on the ground, if it wants to shape the outcome in Syria.[11] However, the Saudi decision to finally “get in the game” may have been shaped less by direct American pressure and more by the failure of the U.S. to influence the negotiations at Geneva III several weeks earlier, and the increasing Saudi frustration with American policy in Syria.[12] Saudi Arabia declared its readiness to send troops into Syria in the immediate aftermath of the dismal failure of the Geneva III negotiations.[13] Ironically, the Saudis appear to have come around to the Obama position, and would like to get in the game because they believe it may be the only way left to spur the U.S. into exercising greater leadership on Syria.[14] With Russia in the driver’s seat, the Saudis recognize there is no longer any alternative to U.S. leadership in order to push back against the Russian-backed Assad regime. Therefore, the Saudis and Turks appear to believe that their behavior will lead the U.S. to be more assertive, in part, to control its allies, and to prevent any further unmanageable escalation. To put it another way, the Saudi/Turkish announcement is brinkmanship, which may be directed as much at their American ally as it is at their Russian-backed adversaries. In the words of Muhammad bin Salman, Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince, “the United States must realize that they are the number one in the world and they have to act like it.”[15]

Russia Changes the Equation

Russia’s September 2015 military intervention changed the balance of forces in Syria and arguably saved the Assad regime.[16] At a relatively low cost, Russia has benefited greatly from this intervention. First, the intervention established Russia’s current role as the principal arbiter of Syria’s future, after having been marginalized in the Eastern Mediterranean region by U.S. diplomacy since the mid-1970s.[17] Second, Russia is showing itself to be an unwavering ally. Third, it is protecting its core strategic interests in Syria, such as its access to the port of Tartus and its new Khmeimim air base near Latakia. Fourth, the intervention has signaled Putin’s ruthlessness to his domestic political opponents. Fifth, it has provided a low-risk opportunity for Russia to showcase its saleable military hardware. Sixth, and perhaps most important to Russia, it has transformed Syria into a global issue through which Russia can undermine Western (U.S. and European) leadership of the international community. In short, the benefits to Russia have been manifold and the costs relatively low.

After the most recent failed attempt at a diplomatic negotiation in Geneva, Assad’s regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, believe that Russia and its partners will only change their inflexible posture on Assad if they need to pay rising costs on the ground.[18] Saudi Arabia and Turkey hope the specter of their joining the fight will put pressure on Assad’s backers to enforce the recently announced ceasefire by the end of the week. Put simply, the announcements were also intended to signal to Assad’s backers that the battlefield costs may rise if the offensive on Aleppo continues. Russia’s response was to respond with its own brinkmanship and threaten a descent into another World War. If this brinkmanship turned into escalation, it would likely produce new waves of refugees fleeing Syria; potential nuclear brinkmanship from Russia; and the specter of NATO forced to intervene because Turkey finds itself at war with Russia.[19]

The repeated announcements from Saudi Arabia that it is ready to contribute ground forces to the U.S. led anti-Islamic State coalition should not be viewed exclusively as either disingenuous brinkmanship or reckless escalation.[20] In other words, it is not just brinkmanship or a feint designed to encourage the U.S. to lead – the Saudis are trying to signal to the U.S. that they are very serious about Syria, and they are willing to take unprecedented risks to advance their interests.

Full Circle

In some respects, the Saudi policy on Syria has now come full circle. In January 2013, Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief, said that the Arab world did not have the military capabilities to intervene in the Syrian war. “It doesn’t have the air force, the navy, the army, the intelligence-gathering machinery to go and surgically stop this fighting.”[21] Then, as now, Saudi Arabia was attempting to convince the U.S. and Europe that they needed to take a more active and forceful military role in Syria. But things are also different now.[22]

The Saudis are deploying fighter jets to Turkey, and declaring to the world that they stand ready to send their special forces into Syria. Have Saudi military capabilities improved so dramatically in the two short years since Turki’s remarks? Perhaps, but there have been two important changes that are influencing the new Saudi approach to Syria. First, since 2013, five important developments changed the context of the Syrian War:

  1. In June 2014, the Islamic State defeated the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and seized control of Mosul, shattering the desert border between Syria and Iraq, and expanding its territorial control and battlefield effectiveness, in part, by capturing advanced military hardware from regime forces. On November 13, 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State, issued an audio recording explicitly targeting the Saudi regime (and repeated it again in subsequent recordings, like May 2015).
  2. In March 2015, the Saudis began a sustained intervention in the Yemeni civil war to forestall an Iranian-backed Houthi takeover that started in September 2014.
  3. Iran signed a nuclear agreement with the EU3+3 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) that would lift international economic sanctions on Iran and provide it with a case infusion in exchange for limits on its nuclear development for 15 to 25 years.
  4. The price of oil has declined sharply since June 2014, forcing the Saudis to issue $5 billion in bonds and run a fiscal deficit in 2015.
  5. The Russian military intervention in Syria in September 2015, which rescued the Assad regime during a period in which it looked as if the Saudi backed opposition forces were making significant gains.

The second change that has altered the Saudi approach to Syria was Salman’s succeeding King Abdullah in January 2015. King Salman, with the help of his energetic son, the Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Muhammad bin Salman, are trying to transform Saudi Arabia’s regional role by injecting a spirit of self-reliance into Saudi security doctrine. Salman’s “doctrine,” as outlined by Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the aftermath of the Saudi decision to intervene in Yemen, was intended to contain and even roll back Iran’s regional influence. However, what defined Salman’s new doctrine according to Khashoggi was not its ends but its means:

“If Saudi Arabia has to act alone, then it will. Of course, it would have preferred this old tested scenario of alliance to be with its old ally [the U.S.]; however it could not link the fate of the country to this alliance – although it first resorted to forming an alliance with its brothers and friends from the Arab and Muslim world.”[23]

U.S. officials were no doubt happy to see Saudi Arabia adopt a more self-reliant security posture. However, while the Salman doctrine represents a more aggressive Saudi plan to contain Iran, it appears, for now, to be a more limited guiding principle for action against Russia’s escalation in Syria.

Riyadh attempted to persuade Moscow on the Syrian issue using dollar diplomacy. Muhammad bin Salman attended the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in June 2015, during which he met with Putin. The visit led to Saudi commitments to purchase Russia’s new short range ballistic missile system and Russian combat helicopters.[24] The Saudis also committed to investing $10 billion in Russia over the next 5 years,[25] and may have discussed providing Russia with advanced technology for oil and gas recovery, which would allow Russia to skirt Western sanctions.[26] It is not clear whether the Saudi efforts have resulted in greater influence with Putin, but they did not dissuade Russia from intervening in Syria in September 2015 and reinforcing Assad’s position in power.

The new Saudi approach to military affairs is also on display this week during the Raʿd al-Shamal (Northern Thunder) military exercise in Hafr al-Batin, Saudi Arabia, which includes 350,000 soldiers from more than twenty Middle Eastern and African countries.[27] While it may be fair to dismiss rumors that the exercise is a dress rehearsal for a massive anti-IS operation into Syria through Jordan,[28] the Saudi media is in fact discussing the operation as preparation for confronting “the forces of extremism.”[29] Most importantly, the scale and seriousness of the exercise demonstrates the new Saudi emphasis on enhancing its military capabilities.[30] In terms of the Syrian War, however, the Saudis are ostensibly back to where they were in early 2013, searching for ways to prod their allies to play a larger role in the Syrian War.

On the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference this past weekend, Saudi Foreign Minister’s Adel al-Jubeir’s remarks to Christiane Amanpour seem to have been intended for U.S. ears. “We are saying we will participate within the U.S.-led coalition, should this coalition decide to send ground troops into Syria, that we are prepared to send special forces with those troops.”[31] U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has repeatedly emphasized that the U.S. was looking for “the rest of the world to step up,” and for the “Gulf countries to do more,” and what al-Jubeir was saying over the weekend was that the Saudis were ready to “step-up” and “do more.”

In a sense, the Saudi announcement is an attempt to test the Obama administration, which has long defended its limited engagement in Syria by arguing that its coalition has lacked effective Sunni Arabs partners on the ground.[32] The Saudis are trying to undercut that argument and convince the U.S. to help them level the playing field that Russia has tilted in Assad’s favor. Underlying this gamesmanship is the Saudi understanding that only higher costs, or the serious prospect of them, will induce the Russians to support a negotiation process that can begin to wind down the Syrian War.

The stakes are indeed high. The prospect of greater costs on the ground may lead Russia to implement the February 11 ceasefire. But what happens if, instead, as Lukyanov suggested, Russia prefers to finish off the rebel opposition in Aleppo first? The U.S. will have to weigh the risks of the Saudi/Turkish offers against the cost of its existing policy of limited engagement. The risk of unmanageable escalation is real, but so is the cost of inaction. As one observer at the Munich Security Conference noted, “much of the United States’ credibility as the leader of the free world depends on whether U.S. diplomacy can make a difference. Countries and players around the world are closely observing how America decides to bring its powers to bear.”[33]

About the author:
*Brandon Friedman
is a Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Program on the Middle East, and a Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University. His research focuses on the political history of the Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf States. Brandon is also the Managing Editor of Bustan: The Middle East Book Review, and teaches modern Middle Eastern history in Tel Aviv University’s International programs.

This article was published by FPRI.

[1] Khaled bin Sultan (with Patrick Seale), Desert Warrior (Harper Collins, 1995), p. 349.

[2] Alec Luhn, Martin Chulov, Emma Graham-Harrison, “Russia’s grip on Syria tightens as brittle ceasefire deal leaves US out in the cold,” The Observer, February 14, 2016; Aron Lund, “Syria in Crisis: A Ceasefire for Syria?,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 13, 2016.

[3] Marc Champion, “Syrian Truce is Dead, and Russia’s in Charge,” Bloomberg View, February 15, 2016.

[4] Agence France Presse (AFP) via al-Arabiya, “Russia sends brand new cruise missile ship to Syria,” February 12, 2016.

[5] Karen DeYoung, “Turkey pledges to send ground forces to fight the Islamic State in Syria,” Washington Post, February 13, 2016.

[6] Agence France Presse (AFP) via al-Arabiya, “Turkey urged to stop shelling Syria targets,” February 14, 2016; Ishmael Jamal and Ahmed al-Misri, “Saudi Arabia vows to overthrow Assad…,” al-Quds al-Arabi [Arabic], February 14, 2016.

[7] Vivian Nereim, “ Saudi Arabia Moves Jets to Turkey, Offers Troops to Fight IS,” Bloomberg News, February 14, 2016.

[8] Fahd Theyabi, “Qatar Will Join Ground Forces if Requested by Riyadh,” aSharq al-Awsat [Arabic], February 15, 2016; “Bahrain says ready to commit ground forces to Syria,” Reuters, February 6, 2016.

[9] Glen Carey, “Saudis Ready to Send Special Forces Against IS in Syria,” Bloomberg News, February 9, 2016; Mehul Srivastava, Erika Solomon, Simeon Kerr, “Saudis make plans to deploy ground troops in Syria,” Financial Times, February 9, 2016.

[10] Ian Black and Kareem Shaheen, “Partial Syrian ceasefire agreed at talks in Munich,” The Guardian, February 12, 2016.

[11] Jeffrey Goldberg, “Ashton Carter: Gulf Arabs Need to Get in the Fight,” The Atlantic, November 6, 2015. Michael R. Gordon, “U.S. Defense Chief Ashton Carter Prods Gulf States to Take Larger Role in ISIS fight,” December 15, 2015.

[12] Aron Lund, “Syria in Crisis: A Ceasefire for Syria?,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 13, 2016; Kenneth Pollack, “Fear and Loathing in Saudi Arabia,”, January 7, 2016.

[13] Ian Black, “Saudi Arabia offers to send ground troops to Syria to fight Isis,” The Guardian, February 4, 2016; Sam Jones, “Ban blames Russia for collapse of Syria talks,” Financial Times, February 5, 2016; “Asiri: Saudi Arabia is ready to send ground forces to Syria,” BBC Arabic, February 4, 2016.

[14] Jamal Khashoggi, “Saudi Arabia’s Plan B in Syria,” al-Arabiya [English], February 16, 2016; Jamal Khashoggi, “A long, long night…” al-Hayat [Arabic], February 13, 2016.

[15] “Transcript: Interview with Muhammad bin Salman,”The Economist, January 6, 2016.

[16] Ibrahim Darwish, “In Damascus today, Putin is the one issuing orders…al-Quds al-Arabi [Arabic], February 14, 2016; Alec Luhn, Martin Chulov, Emma Graham-Harrison, “Russia’s grip on Syria tightens as brittle ceasefire deal leaves US out in the cold,” The Observer, February 14, 2016.

[17] Ehud Yaari, “Russia pursues a new Baghdad Pact,” Times of Israel, October 8, 2015.

[18] Jamal Khashoggi, “Saudi Arabia’s Plan B in Syria,” al-Arabiya [English], February 16, 2016; Jamal Khashoggi, “A long, long night…” al-Hayat [Arabic], February 13, 2016.

[19] Adam Garfinkle, “Follyanna?,” E-Note, Foreign Policy Research Institute, February 11, 2016.

[20] Loveday Morris, “Saudi Arabia and Turkey rolling back on rhetoric to send troops into Syria,” Washington Post, February 15, 2016.

[21] “Turkey: Syrian regime’s actions equal war crimes,” The Associated Press, Januyary 23, 2013.

[22] Issa al-Halyan, “Kingdom of Strategic Changes,” Okaz [Arabic], February 16, 2016.

[23] Jamal Khashoggi, “The Salman doctrine,” al-Arabiya [English], April 1, 2015.

[24] Zachary Keck, “Saudi Arabia Wants to Buy Advanced Russian Missiles: Should America Worry?” The National Interest, August 12, 2015.

[25] Holly Ellyat, “Saudi Arabia to invest $10b in Russia,” CNBC, July 7, 2015.

[26] Gaurav Agnihotri, “What would a Saudi-Russian Partnership Mean for World Energy?”, June 24, 2015.

[27] Fatah al-Rahman Yusuf, “Forces from 20 countries arrive in Saudi Arabia to participate in the ‘Northern Thunder’ exercise,aSharq al-Awsat [Arabic], February 15, 2016.

[29] Mongi al-Saʿidani, “Forces continue to arrive for the largest military exercise in the region,”aSharq al-Awsat [Arabic], February 16, 2016.

[30] Khaled Sulaiman, “Thunder and Lightning in the North!Okaz [Arabic], February 16, 2016.

[31] Mick Krever, “Saudi Official: If all else fails, Remove Assad by force,” CNN, February 13, 2016.

[32] Anthony Capaccio, “Carter Chides Gulf Allies for ‘Strange’ Islamic State Inaction,” BloombergBusiness, January 22, 2016.

[33] Jan Techau, “A Struggle for World Order and a Russian Tragedy,” Carnegie Europe, February 13, 2016.

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

Founded in 1955, FPRI ( is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization devoted to bringing the insights of scholarship to bear on the development of policies that advance U.S. national interests and seeks to add perspective to events by fitting them into the larger historical and cultural context of international politics.

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