LONDON — Saudi Arabia said Thursday that it is ready to send ground troops into Syria to fight the Islamic State as part of the U.S.-led coalition.
“The kingdom is ready to participate in any ground operations that the coalition may agree to carry out in Syria,” a Saudi military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri, said in a news conference in Riyadh.
It was unclear how many troops, or under what circumstances, the Saudis would commit to a ground force. The United Arab Emirates, also a member of the anti-Islamic State coalition, made a similar offer late last year. While some U.S. critics of the Obama administration’s policy in Syria have called for organizing a Sunni Arab force in the region, U.S. officials have said there are no current plans to set up such a force.
The Saudi announcement came as pressure increased on international stakeholders in Syria’s separate, civil conflict to push for a cease-fire that would allow Syrians to shift their attention away from fighting each other and focus on the Islamic State.
Since this week’s suspension of United Nations-led talks in Geneva between the government of President Bashar al-Assad and opposition fighters, the Obama administration has grown increasingly critical of Russian airstrikes on behalf of Assad’s forces. U.S. officials have charged that opposition forces, which Russia says include “terrorists,” have borne the brunt of those attacks.
The stakeholder group is due to meet in Munich on Feb. 11.
Failure to substantively begin the peace negotiations came as international humanitarian groups called on world powers to “start putting Syrians first, and your own interests second,” as Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, put it at a conference in London to address the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria.
“While the front lines have hardly moved over the last years, the civilian population’s suffering has surged,” Maurer said. Millions of Syrians have been displaced in their own country or sent fleeing abroad as refugees, and many lack food and medicine in towns and cities besieged by the fighting.
Addressing the conference earlier in the day, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said the United States would send more than $900 million in additional humanitarian and development aid to Syria and to neighbors burdened with a refugee crush that could take years to ease.
As part of a sum that is likely to swell as the year goes on, the $600 million would go to the United Nations and other agencies for emergency food, shelter and health care in Syria and neighboring countries, Kerry said, where millions of refugees have fled. Much of the rest would help provide schooling for refugee children in Jordan and Lebanon.
About a quarter of all U.S. humanitarian aid last year was tied to the Syrian war, which grew out of anti-government protests in 2011. According to State Department calculations, the latest donation brings U.S. total funding to $5.1 billion, the largest of any country by far.
The conference on Syrian aid efforts — the first since refugees began spreading across Europe last year — was overshadowed by the sudden suspension of the Geneva peace talks, which seemed to offer the best hope of bringing an end to the Syrian civil war.
In a speech to diplomats from 79 countries attending the conference, Kerry characterized the stumble in the talks as a “temporary recess.” U.N. officials have said they hope to reconvene on Feb. 25.
In remarks to reporters, Kerry said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has “agreed we need to discuss” how to implement a cease-fire and get the Syrian government and the opposition to allow humanitarian access. “We will, I am confident, find a way to move forward,” said Kerry, standing alongside British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond.
Hammond said the diplomats at the donor conference are all “very keen to keep the momentum going” in the talks, and he suggested that there is no better option on the table.
“We recognize it’s difficult for the regime to be at the table talking to the opposition,” he said. “It’s difficult for the opposition to talk to the regime when their people at home are being killed through bombing and other forms of attack.
“But we have to continue this process. It’s the only way to get a solution to the disaster that is engulfing Syria.”
Three previous pledging conferences, all held in Kuwait, have raised about half of what was sought for Syria and its burdened neighbors. This fourth conference has drawn several European countries as hosts, and delegates appear to be more resigned to the long road ahead.
King Abdullah II of Jordan, which has more than 1 million Syrian refugees, said his country is at a “boiling point,” as a quarter of Jordan’s budget goes to refugees who need education, health care and social services.
“Sooner or later, I think the dam is going to burst,” he said.
DeYoung reported from Washington.