Turkey wants Syria ground operation, but says no consensus among allies

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey, Saudi Arabia and some European allies want ground troops deployed in Syria but there is no consensus in the coalition and a strategy for such an operation has not been seriously debated, Turkey’s foreign minister told Reuters.

Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu answers a question during an interview with Reuters in Ankara, Turkey, February 16, 2016. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Russian air strikes have helped to bring the Syrian army to within 25 km (15 miles) of Turkey’s borders, while Kurdish militia fighters, regarded by Ankara as hostile insurgents, have also gained ground, heightening the sense of urgency.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said any operation could not be left to regional powers alone.

“Some countries like us, Saudi Arabia and some other Western European countries have said that a ground operation is necessary ... But to expect this only from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar is neither right nor realistic,” he said in an interview.

“If such an operation is to take place, it has to be carried out jointly, like the (coalition) air strikes,” he said.

Washington has so far ruled out sending its own ground troops into Syria, apart from small numbers of special forces.

But Sunni Arab Gulf states including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have said they are ready to send ground forces as part of an international coalition against Islamic State, providing Washington takes the lead.

Cavusoglu said Turkey had repeatedly made the case for a more comprehensive strategy in Syria beyond air strikes but it had not been discussed seriously by the U.S.-led coalition.

“Of course, there would be air strikes but a cleansing on the ground is also needed. I stated in every meeting ... that Daesh could not be destroyed or stopped by air strikes,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

“The coalition has not given this ground operation issue serious debate. There were opponents, and there were those who weren’t going to take part but expressed a desire for Turkey or another country doing it.”

Cavusoglu said Turkey supported the resumption of negotiations for a political solution in Syria but that they would go nowhere if Syrian government forces did not first halt their bombardments.

U.N.-backed peace talks, which were suspended earlier this month, are scheduled to resume in Geneva on Feb. 25.

“One needs to be realistic. While bombs are falling from the sky and people are being massacred under the pressure of the regime or are being starved, the talks cannot be very fruitful,” Cavusoglu said.

He also said Ankara and Washington needed to work harder to overcome differences over the role of the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia. Turkey sees the group as hostile insurgents backed by the Syrian government and Moscow and has shelled YPG positions over the past four days.

Washington sees the PYD, the YPG’s political wing, as an effective ally on the ground in the fight against Islamic State in Syria.

“We may be thinking differently but both sides need to put in more effort to iron out these differences,” Cavusoglu said. “Our American friends have openly told us that they understand our sensitivities.”

Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Humeyra Pamuk and David Stamp