(MENAFN - Arab Times) Saudi Arabia is ready to join any ground operation the US-led coalition against the Islamic State group in Syria might decide on, a general from the kingdom said on Thursday. "If there is any willingness in the coalition to go in the ground operation, we will contribute positively in that," Brigadier General Ahmed al-Assiri told AFP.
Since late 2014 Saudi Arabia has been part of a US-led coalition which officially has 65 members and has been bombing the Islamic State Sunni extremist group which seized large parts of Syria and Iraq. Assiri is spokesman for a separate Saudi-led Arab coalition which, since March, has conducted air strikes and ground operations in Yemen. That coalition supports the government there in its fight against Houthi rebels who seized much of the country and are backed by the kingdom's regional rival Iran.
Iran is also one of the main allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime has been fighting an insurgency for about five years. Saudi Arabia supports more moderate rebels against Assad's forces. US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said in January that several members of the US-led coalition against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria are doing "nothing at all" to help destroy the jihadists. The United States has carried out the bulk of the roughly 9,800 air strikes launched in Iraq and Syria since the summer of 2014.
Saudi Arabia carried out high-profile initial air strikes against the jihadists in Syria but participation by the kingdom and other Gulf members of the coalition declined when they began air strikes in Yemen. "We did not stop our operation in Syria in spite of the operation we have in Yemen," Assiri said. In November, the United Arab Emirates said it was ready to commit ground troops against jihadists in Syria. Quoted by the official WAM news agency, Emirati State Minister for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said the UAE would "participate in any international effort demanding a ground intervention to fight terrorism". "Regional countries must bear part of the burden" of such an intervention, he said. The UAE belongs to the US-led coalition carrying out air strikes in territory under the jihadists' control in Syria and Iraq. It also has troops on the ground in Yemen as part of the Saudi-led coalition there. There have been growing calls for the anti-IS intervention to expand to a ground force. Russia launched its own strikes in Syria in late September and Iran has reportedly sent hundreds of troops to support Assad's regime. Critics - including in the West and Sunni Arab Gulf nations - have accused Russia of targeting moderate rebel forces as well as jihadists. Gargash also suggested the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen could be "an alternative model" to Western intervention in the region. US senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have called for 100,000 foreign soldiers, most from Sunni regional states but also including Americans, to fight IS in Syria.
Assiri's comment came as regime troops pressed a major Russian-backed offensive around Syria's second city Aleppo following the suspension of peace talks. Western nations accused Syria's regime of damaging the talks with its military offensive, and Washington on Thursday demanded Russia halt its bombing campaign in support of Assad's government. The growing offensive around Aleppo this week overshadowed peace and aid efforts, as regime forces sought to build on a series of important gains since Russia launched air strikes in September. US Defense Secretary Ash Carter welcomed the Saudi offer to participate in any ground operations in Syria launched by the US-led coalition.
Carter said increased activity by other countries would make it easier for the United States to accelerate its fight against Islamic State militants. "That kind of news is very welcome," he told reporters while on a visit to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. Carter said he looked forward to discussing the offer of ground troops with the Saudi defense minister in Brussels next week. He said the Saudi government had indicated a willingness to do more in the fight against Islamic State, which controls vast swaths of Syria and Iraq. For instance, Saudi officials had said they would help marshal some Muslim countries to join in the fight, and to ensure that Iraqi and Syrian populations were able to prevent a reemergence of the military group later, Carter said.
Carter said he planned to use next week's meetings in Brussels to help encourage more broad-based support for accelerating the fight against Islamic State. The Pentagon chief said the United States was also watching events in Libya very carefully but had made no decision on expanding its role there. "The concern there is that Libya not get on a glide slope to the kind of situation that we find elsewhere, where (Islamic State), in a politically disrupted environment, seizes a foothold, gathers a piece of territory from which it is able to tyrannize people, and plot operations elsewhere," Carter said.