Soldiers from 20 countries are to gather in Saudi Arabia for massive military exercises lasting 18 days, the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) has reported. This exercise could be quite significant in the region as Riyadh has openly warned Syrian President Bashar Assad that he will be toppled.
The Saudi state agency made the announcement on Sunday, adding that participating troops will begin arriving in “the next few hours.” Saudi Arabia described the exercises as “the largest and most important” military drills in the region’s history.
The military exercise is the largest of its kind in terms of the number of participating countries. Twenty Arab, Islamic and friendly countries, in addition to the Peninsula Shield forces, are taking part. According to reports, some 350,000 forces, 2,540 warplanes, 20,000 tanks and 460 helicopters will participate in the 18 day long exercise.
The participating countries include Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan, Bahrain, Senegal, Sudan, Kuwait, Maldives, Morocco, Pakistan, Chad, Tunisia, Comoros, Djibouti, Oman, Qatar, Malaysia, Egypt, Mauritania, and Mauritius. The US and other Western powers have not been invited.
The so-called “Northern Thunder” exercise will take place in the north of the country and will include air, sea and land forces.
SPA said that it will show that Riyadh and its allies “stand united in confronting all challenges and preserving peace and stability in the region.”
Possible ground operations in Syria
Sunday’s announcement comes as Saudi Arabia, which is a member of the US-led coalition against Islamic State (Daesh/ISIS/ISIL), deployed military jets and personnel to Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base. The base is already used by the US Air Force for their planes conducting sorties in Syria.
While Riyadh says this is necessary to “intensify” its operations against Islamic State in Syria, the move has sparked concern that the Saudis are getting ready for a full-scale ground invasion of war-torn Syria, where they are backing anti-government rebels battling Syrian President Assad.
War of words
In a recent interview with American media, the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir flatly stated that Assad will be toppled if he does not leave during a political transition.
“There will be no Bashar al-Assad in the future. It might take three months, it might take six months or three years – but he will no longer carry responsibility for Syria. Period,” al-Jubeir told German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung.
When asked about the possibility of Saudi ground troops entering Syria, Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said although it was unlikely, “with the crazy Saudi leadership nothing is far-fetched”.
“Any ground intervention in Syria, without the consent of the Syrian government, will be considered an aggression that should be resisted by every Syrian citizen,” he said. “I regret to say that they will return home in wooden coffins.”
Qatari forces head to Saudi Arabia
Land and Air forces of the Qatari Armed Forces, including a mechanised infantry battalion, left Doha on Monday for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to participate in the ‘Northern Thunder’ manoeuvers, which will be carried out at the King Khalid Military City in Hafr Al-Batin, northern Kingdom.
According to the Qatar News Agency, QNA, the three-week massive manoeuvers aim at promoting military cooperation between the GCC, Arab and Islamic countries, developing competencies, raising combat readiness, and training participating forces on using modern military mechanisms.
UAE ready to send ground troops to Syria
Earlier, a top official from UAE had said it is ready to send ground troops to Syria as part of an international coalition to fight the Islamic State, a top official has said.
The announcement came days after Saudi Arabia expressed the same position, saying that it was prepared to deploy troops to fight Islamic State in Syria if the US-led coalition were to agree.
Jordanian forces arrive in Saudi
According to another report, a number of Jordanian Armed Forces has arrived last night in Saudi Arabia to join the military exercise.
According to the Jordan News Agency, Petra, the ‘Northern Thunder’ will run from February 14th until March 6th and aims to stage joint operation planning and boost the combat preparedness of participating armies in a fashion that communicates regional circumstances.
– With inputs from Agencies