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UAE offers boots for IS Syria fight

A Syrian girl arrives at the Bab al-Salam border crossing with Turkey, in Syria, on Feb 6. Thousands of Syrians have rushed toward the Turkish border, fleeing fierce Syrian government offensives and intense Russian airstrikes. (AP)
A Syrian girl arrives at the Bab al-Salam border crossing with Turkey, in Syria, on Feb 6. Thousands of Syrians have rushed toward the Turkish border, fleeing fierce Syrian government offensives and intense Russian airstrikes. (AP)

ABU DHABI, Feb 7, (Agencies): The United Arab Emirates (UAE) said on Sunday it was ready to supply ground troops to help support and train an international military coalition against Islamic State in Syria provided such efforts were led by the United States. Asked whether the UAE could be expected to send ground troops to Syria, and if so under what circumstances, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said: “I think that this has been our position throughout … that a real campaign against DAESH has to include ground elements,” he said, referring to Islamic State’s name using the Arabic acronym.

Saudi Arabia, one of several Sunni Muslim Gulf Arab states, including the UAE, who are opposed to Islamic State, said last week it was ready to participate in any ground operations in Syria if the US-led coalition fi ghting Islamic State militants decided to start such operations. Gargash said that any potential supply of troops would not be particularly large. “We are not talking about a thousand troops but we are talking about troops on the ground that will lead the way, that will train, that will support … And I think our position remains the same and we will have to see how this progresses.” “Of course an American leadership in this effort is a pre-requisite,”

Gargash said. He added that the UAE had been frustrated at the slow pace of the international efforts against Islamic State “although there has been some progress in Iraq recently, of confronting DAESH.” Gargash said the UAE had always stated there also needed to be a “genuine political process in Baghdad that will encompass the Sunnis” in Iraq, which has a Shi’ite-led government. Following Saudi Arabia’s announcement, Syria’s foreign minister said on Saturday Damascus would resist any ground incursion into its territory and send the aggressors home “in coffins”.

Sunni heavyweight Saudi Arabia and most other Gulf states are opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, aid trucks and ambulances entered Syria from Turkey on Sunday to help tens of thousands of people who have fl ed an escalating government assault on Aleppo, as air strikes targeted villages on the road linking the city to the Turkish border.

Rebel-held areas in and around Aleppo, Syria’s largest before the war, are still home to 350,000 people, and aid workers have said they could soon fall to the government. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war, said air strikes, thought to be from Russian planes, hit villages north of Aleppo on Sunday including Bashkoy, Haritan and Anadan, the latter two near the road to Turkey.

Russia’s intervention has tipped the balance of the war in favour of President Bashar al-Assad, reversing gains the rebels made last year. Advances by the Syrian army and allied militias, including Iranian fighters, are threatening to cut the rebel-held zones of Aleppo off from Turkish supply lines. “In some parts of Aleppo, the Assad regime has cut the north-south corridor … Turkey is under threat,” Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan was quoted by the Hurriyet newspaper as telling reporters on his plane back from a visit to Latin America.

Turkey has given refuge to civilians fleeing Syria throughout the confl ict, but is coming under growing pressure from the United States to secure the border more tightly, and, from Europe, to stem the onward fl ow of migrants. It is already sheltering more than 2.5 million Syrians, the world’s largest refugee population. But at the Oncupinar gate, which has been largely shut for nearly a year, the newest arrivals were being shepherded into camps on the Syrian side, where Turkey says they are safe for now. The local governor of Oncupinar said on Saturday that around 35,000 had reached the border in the space of 48 hours. “If needed, we will let those brothers in,” Erdogan was quoted as saying.

Aid officials at Oncupinar said they were focusing for now on getting aid to the Syrian side of the border, where Turkish agencies have set up new shelters. “We’re extending our efforts inside Syria to supply shelter, food and medical assistance to people. We are already setting up another camp,” an offi cial from the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) told Reuters. At a camp at Bab al Salama, on the Syrian side of the border, children played in the muddy lanes between rows of tents lashed by rain. Some were ripped and caked with mud, but others appeared to be newly set up. A fl ag of the opposition Free Syrian Army fl uttered over the road leading out towards the Syrian city of Azaz, along which many of the displaced have travelled in recent days. Opposition fighters armed with Kalashnikovs wandered nearby. “Syria is finished now,” said Dilel Cumali, who has been sleeping at the camp for the past month. “All we want is to get inside Turkey.” Taking full control of Aleppo would be a huge strategic prize for Assad’s government in a five-year conflict that has killed at least 250,000 people across the country and driven 11 million from their homes. “Assad teaming up with Russia is trying to annihilate us,” said Kasim, 21, an opposition fighter lying in hospital in the Turkish town of Kilis, one of a few dozen wounded combatants and civilians let in through Oncupinar in recent weeks. “But they won’t succeed. I will get better and go back to war and fight to the last drop of my blood to see Bashar toppled.” While areas to the northwest of Aleppo are held by Syrian opposition forces and Kurdish groups, the territory to the northeast is held by the militant group Islamic State.

The Observatory said there had been fierce clashes in that area, and state media said government forces had wrested a strategic hill in the eastern Aleppo countryside from Islamic State. Erdogan said Turkey’s armed forces had the full authority to counter any threats to its national security, although senior officials have said the NATO member does not intend to mount any unilateral incursion into Syria. Syria’s foreign minister said on Saturday it would send any invading forces home “in coffins”. Erdogan expressed anger over a US official’s visit to a Kurdish militia group controlling the Syrian town of Kobani, urging Washington to choose between Turkey and the “terrorists” there.

A delegation including senior US diplomat Brett McGurk, special envoy to an international coalition fi ghting IS in Syria and Iraq, last week met members of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a powerful militia that is in control of Kobani. The meetings come after the YPG’s political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), was excluded from new peace talks in Geneva being organised by the UN. Ankara had threatened to boycott the talks if PYD was invited. “He visits Kobani at the time of the Geneva talks and is awarded a plaque by a so-called YPG general?” Erdogan told reporters on his plane returning from a trip to Latin America and to Senegal. “How can we trust [you]?”

Erdogan said. “Is it me who is your partner or the terrorists in Kobani?” His comments were carried by Turkish media on Sunday. Ankara considers the PYD and YPG to be affiliates of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged an armed insurgency in Turkey, while Syria’s opposition accuses them of being too close to the regime in Damascus. But the coalition has worked closely with the YPG since it launched air strikes in Syria in September 2014, expanding a campaign that began in Iraq a month earlier. “Do you accept the PKK as a terrorist organisation? Then why don’t you list the PYD and the YPG as a terrorist organisations, too?” Erdogan asked on the plane.

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