Saudis Ready to Send Ground Forces Into Syria ‘To Fight ISIS’

Patrick Goodenough | February 4, 2016 | 6:49pm EST
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Saudi security forces take part in a military parade in Mecca in September 2015. (AP Photo/Mosa’ab Elshamy, File)

( – A day after a U.N.-hosted Syria peace initiative stalled, Saudi Arabia signaled Thursday that it is ready to contribute to a ground offensive against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), if the U.S.-led coalition agrees to such an operation.

“The kingdom is ready to participate in any ground operations that the coalition may agree to carry out in Syria,” Saudi military spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed Asseri told al-Arabiya television.

“If there was a consensus from the leadership of the coalition, the kingdom is willing to participate in these efforts because we believe that aerial operations are not the ideal solution and there must be a twin mix of aerial and ground operations,” he said.

“Saudi Arabia is ready to fight,” the Saudi Embassy in Washington tweeted. In a statement, the embassy said, “Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Defense today announced it is prepared to deploy ground forces in Syria to fight Da’esh [ISIS], if the U.S.-led international coalition also deploys ground forces.”

Although Riyadh says the focus is on fighting ISIS, the deployment of more countries’ ground troops in Syria would likely draw opposition from the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies, given the Saudis’ strong support for anti-Assad rebel factions.

Russia and Iran portray their military involvement in Syria as different from that of other countries since they are there at the invitation of the “sovereign” government in Damascus.

Foreign forces already fighting on the ground in Syria include Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Hezbollah and other Shi’ite militia on the side of the regime; and foreign fighters attached to ISIS, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front, and other rebel groups ranging from nationalist to radical Salafist in nature.

Airstrikes are being carried out by the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, and by Russia – ostensibly against ISIS, although the U.S. claims it is targeting other anti-Assad rebel groups too.

State Department spokesman John Kirby declined to comment on the Saudi offer, but speaking generally said “we want members of the coalition against Da’esh to look for ways to do more and contribute more.”

“So in general, additional capabilities lent to the coalition to go after Da’esh is a welcome thing, but I haven’t seen this specific proposal,” he said.

Asseri’s comments reflect the view of some countries in the region and beyond that airstrikes alone cannot defeat the terrorist group.

Further clouding an already complex situation, Russia’s defense ministry on Thursday accused Turkey of preparing to send military forces across the border into Syria

“We have serious grounds to suspect Turkey of intensive preparations for military intrusion into the territory of the sovereign state – the Syrian Arab Republic,” the ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov as telling reporters. “We are registering an increasing number of signs of the Turkish armed forces’ hidden preparations for active operations on the territory of Syria.”

He also accused Turkey of supplying weapons covertly at night to “terrorists” inside Syria.

Like Saudi Arabia, Turkey supports anti-Assad rebel groups, putting it at odds with Russia. The Turks have also used the conflict as an opportunity to counter Syrian Kurdish groups linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group embroiled in a separatist struggle with the Turkish state for three decades.

An official in the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s office told Reuters that Russia was merely trying to divert attention from its own “crimes” in Syria, adding that “Turkey has all the rights to take any measures to protect its own security.”

Turkey already hosts more than 2.7 million Syrian refugees, and Davutoglu warned on Thursday that some 10,000 Syrians were waiting at the Turkish border after fleeing airstrikes in Aleppo.

Relations between Turkey and Russia have soured significantly over Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian warplane along the border last November. After ejecting, one of two pilots was shot dead by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, and a Russian marine was also killed by rebels during a rescue mission.

U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura announces a ‘temporary pause’ in the indirect peace talks between the Syrian regime and opposition, in Geneva on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016. He said the process will resume Feb. 25. (Martial Trezzin/Keystone via AP)

In Geneva, attempts by U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura to bring together representatives of the regime and a rebel delegation stalled Wednesday, amid rebel anger over intensified Russian and Assad regime airstrikes. De Mistura suspended the efforts until February 25.

Kirby questioned Russia’s actions, saying they indicate that Moscow wants a military solution to a crisis that requires a political one.

He reiterated that the U.S. wants to see Russian airstrikes in Syria that are “focused exclusively on” ISIS..

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