Saudi Arabia is to host what has been described as the “the largest and most important” military drills in the region’s history.
More than 2,500 warplanes, 20,000 tanks and 450 helicopters are expected to take part in the exercise involving up to 350,000 troops.
The drills will last for 18 days with contingents from 20 countries, including Pakistan the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said.
The announcement which was made on Sunday said that participating troops were to begin arriving in “the next few hours” and follows Riyadh’s warning that Syrian President Bashar Assad would be toppled.
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.”
Among the participants will be Arab and African countries. The US and other Western powers have not been invited.
Sunday’s announcement comes as Saudi Arabia, which is a member of the US-led coalition against Islamic State (IS, formerly 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 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.
In a recent interview with American media, the Saudi Foreign Minister flatly stated that Assad will be toppled if he does not leave during a political transition.
“Bashar al-Assad will leave – have no doubt about it. He will either leave by a political process or he will be removed by force,” Adel al-Jubeir told CNN.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition that has been bombing Houthi rebels in Yemen since March. Riyadh went to war in Yemen to restore ousted President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who fled from the Shiite Houthi rebels after his two-year term expired in January.
His predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was formerly an opponent of the rebels, is now their ally and provides assistance them with tribal troops loyal to him.