Saudi Arabian soldiers during a military parade. (AP file photo)
Saudi Arabia is sending troops and fighter jets to Turkey’s Incirlik military base ahead of a possible ground invasion of Syria. The Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, confirmed the deployment in a statement to the Yeni Safak newspaper on Saturday, days before a temporary ceasefire is due to come into force.
“Saudi Arabia declared its determination against Daesh — the Arabic term for Islamic State (ISIS) — by saying that they were ready to send both jets and troops,” he said. “At every coalition meeting we have always emphasised the need for an extensive result-oriented strategy in the fight against the Daesh terrorist group,” he added.
“If we have such a strategy, then Turkey and Saudi Arabia may launch an operation from the land,” he said.
He confirmed that planes and military personnel were being sent to Incirlik, in Adana near the Syrian border, but said numbers had not been confirmed. Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, said Russia’s intervention would not help Assad stay in power in an interview published on Saturday. “There will be no Bashar al-Assad in the future,” he told a German newspaper.
Cooperation with Turkey could prove problematic if Saudi Arabia follows its definition of “terrorists” to include Kurdish fighters, who have been one of the most effective forces against ISIS on the ground.
Cavusoglu’s statement also raised the possibility of conflict between Turkey and Russia, which he accused of hitting the so-called Islamic State with only 12 per cent of its air strikes. “Russia’s target is supporting Assad, we all know that,” he added. “But the question is this: Who will stop Russia doing that?”
Ash Carter, the American defence secretary, said on Friday that he expected the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates to send commandos to help recapture Islamic State’s Syrian stronghold and de facto capital of Raqqa.
Saudi Arabia and Turkey are among Assad’s foreign opponents who have been supplying selected rebel groups with weapons via a Turkey-based operations centre. Some of the vetted groups, mainly part of the Free Syrian Army, have received military training overseen by the US Central Intelligence Agency.
In the wake of Saudi Arabia’s proposal to send in ground troops on Thursday, the Russian prime minister claimed the move could spark a new world war.
“A ground operation draws everyone taking part in it into a war,” he told the newspaper Handelsblatt. “The Americans and our Arab partners must consider whether or not they want a permanent war.”
Russia started its intervention in September at the request of Assad, Vladimir Putin’s long-term ally, to support the Syrian regime. The Kremlin has repeatedly claimed it is bombing “terrorists” but has been condemned by the UN and the international community for evidence it is predominantly targeting civilian areas held by anti-government rebels.