Turkey, Saudi considering ground operation as Syrian army advances

Turkey, Saudi considering ground operation as Syrian army advances
Ankara and Riyadh are mulling a military intervention in Syria as Saudi planes are deployed to Turkish base, said Turkey's foreign minister Saturday, while Russian-backed Syrian forces make further gains.
4 min read
13 February, 2016
Saudi Arabia could soon be sending ground troops to fight Islamic State in Syria [Getty]

Turkey and Saudi Arabia could launch a ground operation against Islamic State extremists in Syria, the Turkish foreign minister said on Saturday, adding the kingdom was already sending jets to a Turkish base to attack the extremists.

The coordinated plans by Riyadh and Ankara, who are pursuing an increasingly tight alliance, add a new element to the explosive situation in Syria where Russia has been backing a successful regime offensive against rebels.

"If there is a strategy (against IS) then Turkey and Saudi Arabia could enter into a ground operation," Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was quoted as saying by the Yeni Safak and Haberturk newspapers after taking part in the Munich Security Conference.

"Some say 'Turkey is reluctant to take part in the fight against Daesh (IS)'. But it is Turkey that is making the most concrete proposals," he said.

Cavusoglu added that Saudi Arabia is also sending planes to the Turkish base of Incirlik, a key hub for US-led coalition operations against IS, already used by Britain, France and the United States carrying for cross-border air raids.

Asked if Saudi Arabia could send troops to the Turkish border to enter Syria, Cavusoglu said: "This is something that could be desired but there is no plan. Saudi Arabia is sending planes and they said 'If the necessary time comes for a ground operation then we could send soldiers'."

The news comes as the Syrian army retook on Saturday a village that overlooks major rebel-held towns around Aleppo, according to Syrian state television, part of a government campaign to encircle and recaptured insurgent areas of the major northern city.

Syrian state media said the army entered the village of al-Tamura located on high ground above the towns of Anadan, Hayan and Haritan that have been heavily bombed in recent days and become a front line in Syria's almost five-year-old war.

The army, backed by allied militias and heavy Russian aerial bombing, began a big offensive this month aimed at cutting rebel supply line with Turkey and regain full control of Aleppo, Syria's largest city and commercial hub before the war.

Syrian government forces were also poised to advance into the IS stronghold of Raqqa province and allied Russian jets kept up airstrikes on rebel-held towns north of Aleppo, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Saturday.

An advance into Raqqa would re-establish a Syrian government foothold in the province for the first time since 2014 and may be aimed at preempting any move by Saudi Arabia to send ground forces to fight IS militants in Syria.

Saudi Arabia is sending planes to the Turkish base of Incirlik, a key hub for US-led coalition operations against IS

Closer alliance

In an exclusive interview published by AFP on Friday, Syrian President Assad, who said he would recapture the whole of Syria , did not rule out that Turkey and Saudi Arabia would intervene militarily in Syria but said that his armed forces "will certainly confront it".

Saudi Arabia had already said earlier this month that it was ready to join any ground operation against IS. But this is the first time a top Turkish official has publicly raised the prospect, long the subject of speculation, of a joint ground incursion with the kingdom.

Turkey's relations with fellow mainly Sunni Muslim power Saudi Arabia have warmed considerably in recent months. Ties had been damaged by Saudi's role in the 2013 ousting of Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, a close ally of Ankara.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey both see the ousting of Syrian President Bashar Assad as essential for ending Syria's five-year civil war and are bitterly critical of Iran and Russia's support of the Syrian regime.

Turkey and Saudi back rebels who are seeking to oust Assad and both fear the West is losing its appetite to topple Assad on the assumption he is "the lesser of two evils" compared to the IS extremists.

Both are outraged by the Russian military intervention in Syria, which analysts believe has given Assad a new lease of life and has also deeply alarmed the West.