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Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Analysts: Threat of Gulf troops in Syria risks escalating Qatar’s role

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Photo for illustrative purposes only.
Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Qatar would likely deploy a limited military contingent into Syria if Saudi Arabia and the UAE follow through with threats to send ground forces into the war-torn state, foreign policy analysts have said.

However, Qatar’s involvement would be minor, they emphasize, with little chance of Qatari soldiers ending up on the front line.

“I don’t think you’ll see Emirati and Qatari troops walking around Raqqa,” said David Roberts, a lecturer at King’s College London, referring to ISIL’s self-declared capital city in Syria.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if (Qatar) deployed (its) troops. But I would still be surprised if there was genuine (combat),” he told Doha News.

Last week, Saudi Arabia said it was “ready to participate in any ground operations” in the fight against ISIL. That was followed several days later by a similar message from the UAE.

“Our position throughout has been that a real campaign against (ISIL) has to include a ground force,” the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said at a news conference, according to Al Jazeera.

He indicated that American “leadership” would be a prerequisite and that the UAE’s commitment would not be particularly large.

“We are not talking about a thousand troops,” Gargash was quoted as saying.

In response to the comments from Saudi Arabia, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem warned that foreign ground troops entering his country would “return home in wooden coffins.”

Previous involvement

Last October, former Qatar foreign minister Khalid Al Attiyah ruled out sending soldiers from the Gulf state in support of Syrian rebels, saying they “can liberate their country themselves.”

Qatar's former foreign minister, Khalid Al Attiyah
Qatar\’s former foreign minister, Khalid Al Attiyah

Al Attiyah was responding to a question about whether Qatar would provide military assistance to rebels fighting President Bashar Al Assad’s government forces.

However, the public comments made by Saudi and UAE officials identify their potential target as ISIL, rather than government forces.

In 2014, Qatar’s Emiri Air Force took to the skies above Syria alongside military planes from the US and four Arab nations as part of an aerial campaign against ISIL.

But some observers are sceptical that the Gulf states would risk major casualties by sending ground troops to Syria.

But others note the increasing willingness among GCC countries to use their own soldiers over the last year to address perceived security threats makes such calculations increasingly difficult.

Yemen

Qatar escalated its commitment last year to the Saudi-led coalition that’s fighting Houthi rebels and backing forces loyal to exiled Yemeni president Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.

After deploying 10 fighter jets in March, Qatar sent ground forces, armored vehicles and attack helicopters into the country last September.

For illustrative purposes only.
For illustrative purposes only.

Qatar suffered its first casualty in Yemen two months later.

“We’ve seen the Gulf states put their troops in harm’s way in Yemen, but it’s been done pretty carefully,” Roberts said, noting there are no massed ranks of soldiers fighting on large fronts.

This view is echoed by Andrew Hammond, a Middle East analyst with the European Council of Foreign Affairs.

While there are some Gulf soldiers in Yemen, Hammond noted that mercenaries from Sudan and Colombia have also been deployed to the country.

“If we take the Yemen invasion as a template, when they said they would invade (Syria) with ground troops, whose troops are they really talking about?” he asked.

Hammond said he believes it’s unlikely the Gulf countries will send their soldiers into Syria. If ground forces are committed, he said it’s likely to be restricted to special forces.

The large number of militant groups and foreign countries operating in Syria mean that moving large numbers of Gulf troops around the country would be “messy,” require extensive coordination with others and risk escalating tensions with Iran, Hammond said.

“That’s a positive thing, in a way, because it limits the space for ill-thought-out adventures,” he said.

Hammond added that he believes it’s “quite unlikely” that Qatar would play a significant role in any ground invasion, noting the Gulf state has kept a lower profile in recent years.

“If they did get involved … (there would likely be) support on the surface, but limited practical involvement.”

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