Turkey proposes joint ground operation in Syria

Updated February 17, 2016

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ISTANBUL: Turkey called on Tuesday for a ground operation in neighbouring Syria with its international allies, as a UN envoy held talks in Damascus aimed at saving a troubled ceasefire plan.

Tensions escalated over Russia’s air war in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with Ankara branding it “vile, cruel and barbaric” and EU President Donald Tusk saying it “leaves little hope” of a solution.

Turkey sees the ouster of Mr Assad as essential to ending a five-year conflict that has killed more than 260,000 people, and is highly critical of Iran and Russia over their support for the Damascus regime. “We want a ground operation with our international allies,” a senior Turkish official told reporters in Istanbul.

“There is not going to be a unilateral military operation from Turkey to Syria,” the official said, but added: “Without a ground operation it is impossible to stop the fighting in Syria.”

Saudi Arabia, another fierce critic of Mr Assad, has said it was ready to send special forces to Syria to take part in ground operations against the militant Islamic State (IS) group.

Iran warned on Tuesday that any troop deployment on Syrian soil without Damascus’s authorisation would violate international law.

The United Nations said on Monday that nearly 50 civilians, including children, had died in the bombings of at least five medical facilities and two schools in northern Syria.

The region around Syria’s second city of Aleppo has been the target of a major anti-rebel offensive by Syrian government troops, backed by Russian warplanes, which has sent tens of thousands fleeing to the Turkish border.

Russia denied it had bombed any hospital in Syria, calling such reports “unsubstantiated accusations”.

Ceasefire hopes fade

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura met Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem in Damascus on Tuesday to try to keep alive the proposal announced by world powers in Munich early on Friday for a “cessation of hostilities” in Syria within a week.

“We have been particularly talking about the issue of humanitarian unhindered access to all besieged areas not only by the government but also by (the) opposition” and IS, De Mistura told reporters afterwards.

He said they would meet again “to address this urgent issue which as you know relates to the wellbeing of all Syrian people and is connected to the very clear discussions and conclusions of the Munich conference”.

Mr Assad downplayed on Monday prospects of a halt in fighting, saying that it would be “difficult” to implement a truce.

“They are saying they want a ceasefire in a week. Who is capable of gathering all the conditions and requirements in a week? No one,” he said in televised remarks.

Turkey meanwhile shelled Kurdish positions in northern Syria for a fourth straight day on Tuesday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor.

Published in Dawn, February 17th, 2016