Turkey, Saudi Arabia and some European allies want ground troops deployed in Syria as a Russian-backed government advance nears NATO’s southeastern border, Turkey’s foreign minister said, but Washington has so far ruled out a major offensive.
Syrian government forces made fresh advances on Tuesday, as did Kurdish militia, both at the expense of rebels whose positions have been collapsing in recent weeks under the Russian-backed onslaught.
The offensive, supported by Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias as well as Russian air strikes, has brought the Syrian army to within 25 km (15 miles) of Turkey’s frontier, while Kurdish fighters, regarded by Ankara as hostile insurgents, have extended their presence along the border.
The advances have increased the risk of a military confrontation between Russia and Turkey. Turkish artillery returned fire into Syria for a fourth straight day on Tuesday, targeting the Kurdish YPG militia which Ankara says is being backed by Moscow.
“Some countries like us, Saudi Arabia and some other Western European countries have said that a ground operation is necessary,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told Reuters in an interview.
However, this kind of action could not be left to regional powers alone. “To expect this only from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar is neither right nor realistic. If such an operation is to take place, it has to be carried out jointly, like the (coalition) air strikes,” he said.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said the “brutal operation” by Russian and Syrian forces was aimed at forging a YPG corridor along Turkey’s border, something Ankara has long feared would fuel Kurdish separatist ambition on its own soil.
Turkey accused Russia on Monday of an “obvious war crime” after missile attacks in northern Syria killed scores of people, and warned the YPG it would face the “harshest reaction” if it tried to capture a town near the Turkish border.
Russian air support for the Syrian government offensive has transformed the balance of power in the five-year-old war in the past three weeks.
World powers meeting in Munich last week agreed to a pause in the fighting, but that is not set to begin until the end of this week and was not signed by the warring Syrian parties.
The U.N. Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, held talks with Syria’s foreign minister on Tuesday aimed at securing a cessation of hostilities and said Damascus had a duty to let the world body bring in humanitarian aid.