Saudi Arabia and 20 Muslim nations are currently taking part in a large-scale military training exercise dubbed Operation Northern Thunder. The exercise began on 14 February and is expected to continue until 10 March. Over 150,000 soldiers from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Jordan, Sudan, and Senegal are taking part in the training exercise. The exercise is one of the largest training maneuvers ever conducted in the oil-rich state. With the growing regional clout of Iran, Saudi Arabia has stated this operation is being used to understand the levels of preparedness and supply capabilities of the nation’s taking part in the exercise. The Saudis are currently engaged in combat operations in Yemen, leading a 35-member coalition against the Iran-supported Houthi rebels who overthrew the government in March 2015.
With the ongoing crisis in Syria, Saudi officials have stated they may pursue a ground offensive to assist in combating the threat of ISIS and aid Syrian rebels in overthrowing the Assad regime. The Syrian government is currently receiving aid and military support from Russia and Iran, and a Saudi intervention may lead to catastrophe. The Russians will not tolerate a Saudi intervention, especially one directed at overthrowing the Assad regime. The Iranians would also oppose any intervention, as Assad is a key ally in the region and helps broker their regional influence in the Middle East. Should the Saudis pursue the intervention, it is expected that Russia and Iran will deploy conventional forces to oppose the move and a large-scale engagement may further destabilize the region.
Despite the saber-rattling of the Saudi government, many within Saudi Arabia oppose further military action. One of the primary sources of revenue for the Arab kingdom, oil, has taken a major hit on international markets. Oil prices have collapsed from its high of $140 a barrel in 2008 to $32 a barrel in 2016. The significant loss of revenue has led to economic troubles in Saudi Arabia. With current combat operations in Yemen, the kingdom would further exacerbate their economic woes by opening a second-front in Syria.
The US and Russia have led the way for establishing a ceasefire in Syria between anti-Assad forces and the Assad regime. While the truce would cease fighting between the government and anti-Assad forces, it will not include the current operations against ISIS and the al-Qaeda backed Nusra Front. Since fighting began in March 2011, 250,000 Syrians have been killed in the fighting, and millions more have fled, becoming refugees. The expected ceasefire will come into effect on 27 February, although there is skepticism as to whether it will truly end.