Saudi Arabia and Turkey appeared Monday to be rolling back rhetoric on sending troops to Syria, as officials said they’d wait to see if a planned cease-fire transpires and for a sign-off from the US-led coalition.
A Saudi diplomat said Sunday that Saudi Arabia was “very serious” about sending ground troops into Syria, but will first wait to see whether plans for a pause in hostilities agreed by the United States and Russia transpires.
However, speaking in Riyadh, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir also said late Sunday that the decision whether to have a ground component on the ground is up to the US-led coalition.
“The timing is not up to us,” he said.
Turkey is also considering sending in ground troops, the Saudi diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
The Saudi force would be made up of special forces soldiers but details are still being planned, he said.
An already tangled conflict has become more complex even as world powers push for a pause in hostilities due to be implemented later this week. Russia has been bombing from the air as Syrian government forces, including Iranian and Iraqi fighters, close in on Aleppo.
An array of rebel groups backed by the United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been losing ground.
The “disarray” has spurred Saudi to action, the diplomat said, adding that Riyadh wanting to both counter Islamic State militants and Iranian influence in the country.
“Time is running out,” he said. “We are waiting for the peace process to end. We believe it will fail and when it does the situation will be completely different.”
He said Saudi Arabia and Turkey are largely “on the same page” but that Ankara is also focused on countering Kurdish forces inside Syria.
“The Turkish government has made some progress in their thinking, they realized Daesh is a threat,” the diplomat said, using an Arabic acronym for Isis. “But they are also using this as a time to eliminate the Kurdish groups.”
Turkey has been shelling Kurdish forces this weekend after they seized an airbase in northern Syria, leading to appeals from US officials for a de-escalation.
Turkish Defence Minister Ismet Yilmaz Monday denied that Turkish forces had entered Syria following a complaint by the Syrian government to the UN Security Council. It claimed that Turkish forces were among 100 gunmen that entered the country on Saturday.
“It’s not true,” Yilmaz said according to the state-run Anadolu Agency. “There is no thought of Turkish soldiers entering Syria.”
That statement jarred with the Saudi diplomat’s comments. He said Saudi officials discussed the possibility of sending troops with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, during a recent three-day visit to Saudi Arabia.
“Turkey isn’t against the ground troops, but they want to say ‘we gave the peace process a chance’,” he said.
He said a force would only consist of special forces, and the size of it is still being planned.
Yilmaz confirmed that a decision had been reached for Saudi Arabia to send four F-16 fighter jets to Turkey’s Incirlik air base.
“The Kingdom’s deployment of aircraft to the Incirlik air base in Turkey is part of this campaign,” foreign minister Jubeir told a news conference in Riyadh Sunday, Reuters reported. “The kingdom’s readiness to provide special forces to any ground operations in Syria is linked to a decision to have a ground component to this coalition against Daesh in Syria - this US-led coalition ."