Gulf states 'could expand anti-IS role to ground troops'

Rene Slama
Picture released by the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) shows Saudi Arabian air force pilots in the cockpit of a fighter jet at an undisclosed location on September 23, 2014, after taking part in a mission to strike IS group targets in Syria (AFP Photo/)

Dubai (AFP) - Gulf monarchies taking part in US-led air strikes against the Islamic State jihadist group in Syria could deploy special forces on the ground but only if certain conditions are met, analysts say.

Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have joined air strikes on the IS, which has seized swathes of Syria and neighbouring Iraq.

But they want to assess their potential gains and fear that Shiite-majority Iran may emerge the ultimate winner, the experts added.

Any decision by Gulf states to send in troops would depend on whether Turkey decides to use its own ground forces, according to Mathieu Guidere, professor of Middle East Studies at Toulouse University.

"A ground intervention from Arab countries depends on the Turkish decision to engage or not ground troops. We are likely to see Arab boots on the ground if Turkish forces engage in the Syrian territory," he said.

Turkish forces are gathered along the Syrian border across from the strategic town of Kobane, but Ankara has been reluctant to use them to tackle advancing IS militants.

Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said the Gulf role in strikes on Syria to date was "somewhere between purely symbolic and fully operational".

If the Gulf states did step up their role, Wehrey said it would likely take the form of deploying special forces.

Such units would not be involved in actual combat but rather staff "operations rooms, coordinate weapons flows, collaborate on intelligence collection, advise and equip the (Syrian) opposition," he added.

He pointed out the Gulf militaries played a similar role in shoring up Libyan rebels battling to overthrow the country's longtime leader Moamer Kadhafi in the 2011 uprising.

- Iran the winner? -

In the Emirati daily Gulf News, a headline said regional states were "on the right side of the fight against extremist ideology," which "threatens their own stability".

But some commentators are asking what the monarchies stand to gain from the US, which could pull out abruptly once its own goals have been achieved.

Gulf states have thrown their weight behind rebel groups which have been battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since March 2011.

"I think the end state for these participating Gulf countries is a sort of quid pro quo whereby the US eventually expands the strikes to Assad's forces," said Wehrey.

But others are more doubtful about what the countries stand to gain.

"America is far from frank about its true intentions," said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, political science professor at the University of the Emirates.

"There is the constant fear that every time the US touches the Middle East, it makes things worse and instead of solving regional problems, it invariably creates bigger ones," he said.

Abdulla said "Iran has a proven record of taking advantage of America's mistakes. It could be once again the net beneficiary of this campaign" against the jihadists.

In leadership circles in the UAE, fears remain of Sunnis being marginalised. "We are very concerned that Iran might benefit," said an Emirati official on condition of anonymity.