Is the U.S.-Saudi Arms Deal the End of Syria As We Know It?

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President Trump’s first official foreign trip turned out quite eventful, to say the least. While fellow Americans were debating whether Saudi Arabia was the right choice to be the first destination or not, Trump stunned everyone by striking the largest arms deal in U.S. history. As per the agreement, the US will provide the Saudis with armaments worth $110 billion. The deal raises many questions and, if unchallenged, has the potential to change the geopolitical realities in the Middle East.

First and foremost, states rarely engage in such colossal arms deals for the sake of military showcase. Such astronomical purchases usually hint on the buying country’s intentions to dramatically change the regional status quo or prepare for a full-scale military adventure. Perhaps the best example to elaborate on would be the Libyan-Soviet arms deal of 1976. The purchase was finalized by Muammar Gaddafi and the Soviet premier Aleksei Kosygin in Tripoli. Though the total value of the purchase was announced to be around $400 million, later Egypt’s Anwar Sadat convincingly argued that in reality it was $12 billion making it one of the largest arms deals in history. Gaddafi’s purchase was part of his expansionist policy manifested by the invasion of Chad 3 years after the Libyan-Soviet deal was concluded.

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Now, it is premature to claim that the Saudis are contemplating invasion in the immediate horizon. But what’s clear is that the delivery of such sophisticated weapons exposes Riyadh’s objectives of escalating the military operations in Yemen and most importantly in Syria. One wouldn’t be wrong to assume that there is a connection between Trump’s recent strikes against Syria and the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia. The message is clear: the US de facto puts the fate of Syria into the hands of the Saudis in hopes of accelerating the fall of Assad’s regime and letting Riyadh confront Iran more vigorously.

It is incredibly unlikely that Moscow will respond by deploying massive armaments to Damascus to counterbalance the Saudi advancement. First, rewarding the regime supporters with advanced weapons could prove ineffective given the number of people fighting for Assad. Secondly, cash-strapped Moscow doesn’t want to commit itself to the full elimination of rebel forces throughout Syria. As long as strategically vital areas like Latakia and Damascus remain under Assad’s control, Russia will refrain from further military campaigns.

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Russian fighter jets deploying in Syria.

This opens a window for Riyadh to engage in Syria more fiercely. The main adversary for the Saudis is Iran which maintains ground troops throughout the country and will feel compelled to ramp up its military capabilities to halt the Saudi advancement. The biggest loser of all will, of course, be Syria where renewed fightings will lead to country’s final fragmentation.

Interestingly, Israel hasn’t boycotted Washington’s decision to arm Riyadh to the teeth like it did in 1981 when President Reagan delivered Airborne Warning and Control Systems to Saudi Arabia. Benjamin Netanyahu’s government might hope for a possible Saudi-Iranian confrontation that would direct Tehran’s full attention to Riyadh. But even for Israel the deal poses significant threats. Make no mistake, Saudi Arabia is no friend to Israel and could use the same weapons against the latter, should the circumstances dictate so. What’s left for Israel is to wait and see how the Tehran-Riyadh rivalry plays out.

Call it a strategic patience, if you will.

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Clearly, the arms delivery of such magnitude to a volatile region like the Middle East is inherently flawed. What if the weapons fall into the wrong hands again? Will the US be willing to monitor how and where the weapons are used? Wasn’t it less than a year ago when the government audit claimed that arms delivered to Iraq and Kuwait (worth $1 billion!) disappeared without a trace? These are the questions that we will have to readdress in the near future.

In the end, it is the proxy countries that pay the price for the mistakes made by external powers. In this case, we might see Syria disappear from the world map in a century that so hopelessly claimed that geopolitics is a thing of the past.

Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 10.23.51 PMErik Khzmalyan is a Fellow at the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute. Erik specializes in U.S. Foreign Policy, Eurasia, and Geopolitics. He is currently an M.A. candidate in Statecraft and International Affairs at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C.


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