On Feb. 4, Saudi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri announced that Saudi Arabia is now ready to send ground troops to Syria to fight the Islamic State (IS). Saudi Arabia is part of the international anti-IS coalition led by the United States since September 2014. However, when it launched the war in Yemen to fight the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels almost a year ago, its priorities shifted and its airstrikes on IS subsided. In December, it launched a new Muslim anti-IS coalition, but this, too, remains ambiguous as a strategy and may be interpreted as yet another attempt by the Saudi regime to seek Islamic backing against its rival and archenemy, namely Iran. It is important to understand why the Saudis announced they are now willing to venture into the troubled waters of Syria with ground troops, allegedly to fight IS.
The 2014 Saudi airstrikes on IS were viewed by many as a symbolic gesture to convince the international community of its commitment to fight terrorism. Saudi support for various radical rebel groups in Syria, together with the ideology of IS that resembles radical Saudi religious interpretations, had prompted some observers to doubt Saudi commitment to fight terrorism. Hence the announcement to launch airstrikes on IS came at a time when the Saudi regime became increasingly suspicious in the eyes of some international commentators. The occasional airstrikes took place when King Abdullah was still king, but by the time he died in January 2015, they became extremely rare and hardly publicized in the domestic and international press.