Turkey’s foreign-affairs minister said Saudi Arabia “could” send ground forces into Syria, a move that would be unusual for the oil-rich kingdom, which has only recently deployed ground forces in its campaign against Iran-backed rebels in neighboring Yemen.
“If there is a strategy, then Turkey and Saudi Arabia could enter into a ground operation,” Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu was quoted as saying by local newspapers Saturday. The statement was made around the same time Turkish forces shelled a Syrian air base and nearby village that was recently captured by Kurdish fighters.
Riyadh and Ankara have been discussing how to coordinate military operations against Islamic State group extremists in Syria, and Saudi Arabia has already deployed fighter jets to a base in Turkey to battle the jihadis from the air. But Turkey also views Kurdish fighters in the region as terrorists, a stance that’s not publicly shared by Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has steered away from openly taking sides in Turkey’s lengthy battle against militants seeking Kurdish self-rule.
If Saudi Arabia commits boots to the ground, it would be a rare move by the country. It typically extends financial and other support to coalition forces it backs, but seldom deploys its own troops, preferring to keep them close to home to maintain internal security.
The Sunni Muslim kingdom has periodically fought neighboring Yemen during the past 80 years, and it contributed 3,000 troops during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. King Salman last year ordered members of his elite National Guard to join a coalition he leads that is fighting Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen. But a deployment of Saudi troops to Syria would mark the first time Riyadh has sent its troops to battle Sunni Muslim extremists.
Saturday, Turkish forces shelled a Syrian air base and village near Aleppo that was reportedly wrested from insurgents by Kurdish fighters. A Kurdish official said the base was taken by a Kurdish-allied group rather than by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish militia operating in Syria that is allied to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Kurdish political organization based in northern Syria. The air base was wrested from the Syrian government by Islamist rebels in 2013, but was attacked by Turkey only after it fell to the Kurds.
Ankara considers both the YPG and the PYD affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK has been waging an armed struggle with Turkey over Kurdish independence since 1984. The traditional homeland of the Kurds overlaps northern Iraq and Syria and Iraq, about one-half of Turkey and a slice of western Iran. It’s unclear whether Saudi Arabia would be willing to join Turkey in attacking Kurds in the conflict over Kurdish independence in eastern Turkey.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said in a televised speech Saturday the country would take military action against PYD-aligned fighters in Syria in the event it found it necessary. Last year, Turkey bombarded targets in northern Iraq held by PKK militants.
“We would expect our friends and allies to stand by us,” Davutoğlu said.