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Saudi Arabia has made a 'final' decision to join the fight against ISIS

Saudi military spokesman Ahmed Al-AssiriScreenshot/BBCSaudi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Ahmed Al-Assiri

Saudi Arabia has made a “final” decision to send ground troops into Syria to fight the Islamic State, the spokesman of the Saudi-led coalition force in Yemen told reporters on Thursday.

Brig. Gen. Ahmed Al-Assiri said that Riyadh was “ready” to join the US-led anti-ISIS coalition in Syria, according to Saudi news agency Al-Arabiya. He noted, however, that the coalition — which has largely targeted ISIS militants with airstrikes — has not given its final approval on the Saudis’ decision to send ground troops.

“We are representing Saudi’s [decision] only” in sending troops, al-Assiri said.

Al-Assiri signalled for the first time last week that Saudi Arabia would be ready to send ground troops into Syria if its coalition allies — including the US, Turkey, and the UK — asked them to.

“The kingdom is ready to participate in any ground operations that the coalition (against ISIS) may agree to carry out in Syria,” al-Assiri told al-Arabiya TV news last Thursday. The Guardian later reported that the Saudis may be prepared to deploy thousands of ground troops into Syria.

Some experts, however, were immediately sceptical over how much the Saudis would really be willing to contribute to the fight.

“The Americans are pushing the Gulf states hard. But to be clear, if it happens at all, it’s going to be like support for bombing — essentially symbolic,” said geopolitical expert Ian Bremmer, president of the world’s largest political-risk consultancy, Eurasia Group.

“The Saudis won’t send significant numbers — they already stretched with an uphill and losing struggle in Yemen — and they won’t want to be on the front lines, asSaudi troops in Syria would be fighting and killing other Sunnis (and indeed other Saudi Sunnis),” Bremmer told Business Insider on Thursday. “That would be unprecedented, and enormously unpopular.”

Even so, Saudi Arabia’s growing international isolation — and the rising regional influence of its biggest rival, Iran — has led the kingdom to “double down” on protecting its interests, according to an analysis of the world’s top 2016 risks released by Eurasia Group last month.

That includes the Kingdom’s interests in Syria, where Saudi-backed rebel groups are currently battling Iran-backed Shi’ite militias and Hezbollah forces loyal to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Saudi Arabia is locked in two other proxy wars with Iran in Yemen and Bahrain.

Sayyda Zeinab, SyriaSANA via APIn this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrians gather where three bombs exploded in Sayyda Zeinab, a predominantly Shiite Muslim suburb of the Syrian capital, Syria, Sunday, Jan. 31, 2016.

Saudi Arabia’s relations with Iran hit a new low in January after the Saudis executed a prominent Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, leading Iranian protesters to ransack and set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran. The kingdom cut off all diplomatic ties with Iran shortly thereafter.

Washington’s response to the spat between Saudi Arabia — a longtime US ally — and Iran, with which the Obama administration recently secured a historic nuclear deal, was not as supportive of the Saudis as the kingdom would have hoped.

Indeed, as the Saudis continue to balk at the US’ decision to lift nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, Washington has shown few, if any, signs that it intends to prevent Syria from becoming a Russian-Iranian sphere of influence.

As such, just as Russia intervened in Syria under the guise of fighting ISIS to project its own power in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia may use the fight against ISIS as an excuse to enter Syria’s battlefield — and take the task of containing Iran’s expanding influence in the region into its own hands.

“Everybody is looking for the Americans to step up,” Bremmer said. “And the US isn’t going to do a fraction of what the Russians are prepared for militarily. So this is set to get worse.”

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, for his part, reportedly warned that foreign intervention in Syria could spark “a new world war.”

Meanwhile, in his interview with Al-Arabiya last week, al-Assiri jabbed at Russia and Iran’s apparent lack of commitment to fighting ISIS on the ground in Syria.

“Increasingly, it seems that none of the forces on the ground in Syria (besides rebel groups) is willing to fight ISIS,” Assiri said.

He added: “The Assad regime, Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah are preoccupied with fighting Bashar al-Assad’s opposition with one ostensible goal: to keep Bashar al-Assad in power, irrespective of the cost in innocent Syrian lives.”

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