February 29, 2016 / 7:05 PM / 4 years ago

Coalition discussed Syria ground incursion: Saudi official

ANKARA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense ministers from the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State militant group discussed the possibility of a Syrian ground incursion two weeks ago but they have not made a decision, an aide to Saudi Arabia’s defense minister said on Monday.

People carry a banner while attending a protest against forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, Russia and the Syrian Democratic forces, in Tariq al-Bab neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria February 29, 2016. The banner reads: "The people want to overthrow the regime, the ongoing revolution, Aleppo Rebels." REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

“It was discussed two weeks ago in Brussels,” Brigadier General Ahmed Asseri said in a telephone interview from Riyadh. “It was discussed at the political level but it wasn’t discussed as a military mission,” he said.

“Once this is organized, and decided how many troops and how they will go and where they will go, we will participate in that,” he said. “We need to discuss at the military level very extensively with the military experts to make sure that we have a plan.”

Asseri also said the kingdom was now ready to strike Islamic State from Turkey’s southern Incirlik air base, where four Saudi fighter jets arrived last week. The jets have not yet participated in any attacks, he added.

The U.S. State Department said the Saudis had previously talked about the possibility of introducing ground forces in Syria to fight Islamic State, but there were many issues that needed to be discussed about a potential incursion.

Deploying ground forces would be a major escalation for the 66-member U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, which has so far relied mainly on air strikes and arming and equipping moderate Syrian opposition groups.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said at a news briefing in Washington that the Saudis had talked about “the potential of an introduction of some sort of ground force element in Syria” and that the United States would welcome such a contribution in the fight against Islamic State.

“But there’s a lot that needs to be discussed in terms of what they would do, what their makeup would be, how they would need to be supported by the coalition going forward. So there’s a lot of homework that needs to be done,” Kirby said.

A U.S. defense official said supporting indigenous anti-Islamic State forces on the ground was a key component of the U.S. strategy against the group.

“We will continue to provide equipment packages to vetted leaders and their units so that over time they can make a concerted push into territory still controlled” by Islamic State, the official said.

“As a matter of policy, we won’t comment or speculate on potential future operations,” the official added.

Writing by Humeyra Pamuk and Mohammad Zargham; Editing by David Dolan and Lisa Shumaker

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