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News Analysis: What are the hidden messages from Saudi's massive military drill?

Xinhua, February 22, 2016 Adjust font size:

Despite Saudi Arabia's official line that an upcoming massive military drill targets no third party or directed at any specific operation, analysts say that the primary aim of the maneuver is to tilt the balance in Syria and Yemen in its favor.

The drill, code-named "Ra'ad Al-Shamal" (Northern Thunder), is set to begin on Friday. The three-week event will bring together Gulf Arab countries as well as Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia, Morocco, Mauritania, Djibouti, Comoros, Pakistan, Malaysia, Senegal, Chad, the Maldives and Mauritius.

The massive war games will involve some 150,000 troops, 300 aircraft, hundreds of tanks and other advanced weaponry, according to Saudi defense officials.

The Saudi state news agency said the drill would send a "a clear message" that the kingdom and its allies "stand united to confront all challenges and maintain peace and stability in the region."

Many regional observers and analysts believe that Saudi Arabia's decision to organize such massive war games is closely related to the situation in Syria and Yemen.

In Syria, government forces, backed by Russian airstrikes, have recently recaptured cities and towns in the north from Saudi-backed rebels.

The upcoming military drill might be intended to exert pressure on the Syrian government. Given Saudi Arabia's earlier announcement that it is willing to send ground troops into Syria if needed, the war games could also be a test of Saudi Arabia's combat readiness for a possible ground offensive, analysts said.

Meanwhile, by inviting 19 other countries for the military drill, Saudi Arabia may also want to send a message to Russia and Iran that they should act cautiously on Syria.

As for Yemen, almost a year after Saudi military involvement there, the Arab coalition forces led by the kingdom has not succeeded in defeating the Shiite Houthi group or the rebel forces under former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

By hosting the largest-ever military drill in the history of the region, Saudi may also want to intimidate its enemies in Yemen so it can get untangled soon from a worsening crisis there, observers said.

All in all, the upcoming event would mark a significant move by Saudi Arabia to boost its role as a key regional player.

Saudi Arabia has three main targets in regional politics now, namely to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to be able to withdraw from Yemen and to weaken Iran, said senior media commentator Nabeel Abdu. But he noted that the kingdom's waning influence means that it is no easy task for Saudi Arabia to achieve any of these goals.

As he sees it, Saudi Arabia is not likely to act on its own in launching a ground offensive in Syria.

Saudi Arabia could end up only providing financial support or weapons to other coalition partners willing to fight on the ground in Syria, or sending a small number of troops at the most, he said. Endi