MUNICH — Turkey will supply ground forces to an anti-Islamic State coalition in Syria and will allow Saudi Arabian strike missions against the militants from its air bases, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in an interview published Saturday.
The Saudis have already visited the Turkish base at Incirlik, where U.S. warplanes are launching attacks against the Islamic State, in preparation for the new deployment, Cavusoglu told the pro-government Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak after speaking at an international security conference here.
Turkey’s commitment comes after Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates said they would supply Special Forces troops as part of the U.S.-led coalition. Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter appealed to coalition partners this past week in Brussels to provide more resources. U.S. Special Operations forces are already working in Syria.
Cavusoglu emphasized that no strategy for joint ground operations has yet been presented to the coalition. “If we have such a strategy, then Turkey and Saudi Arabia may launch an operation from the land,” he said. Referring to criticism that Turkey has been “unwilling” to join the fight against the Islamic State, he said his government has been “pushing for more tangible suggestions.”
In a speech to the conference Saturday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said defeating the Islamic State “is not an overnight proposition. It’s going to take time. But I tell you this,” Kerry said, “President Obama is determined that it will not take too much time. And we welcome the recent announcements a number of countries have made to intensify their support.”
Kerry also devoted part of his remarks to reassuring Europe that the United States understands the pressure it is under from the flood of more than a million migrants and refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war and conflicts across the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. Some European leaders have said that the U.S. administration fails to grasp the seriousness of the fissures that the influx has opened in postwar European unity.
“I want to make it clear to all of you,” Kerry said. “The United States isn’t sitting across the pond, saying this is your problem, not ours. . . . The United States understands the near-existential nature of this threat to the politics and fabric of life in Europe.”
That is why, he said, the administration promoted and would join a new NATO initiative to send warships to the eastern Mediterranean to “close off a key access route” for migrants traveling by sea from Turkey to Greece to reach the heart of Europe.
In response to Eastern European fears that ongoing Russian intervention in Ukraine presages an attempt to expand Moscow’s influence throughout the region, Kerry said the United States had also “upgraded our commitment to European security with a planned fourfold increase in spending” from $790 million to $3.4 billion. “This will allow us to maintain a division’s worth of equipment in Europe and an additional combat brigade in Central and Eastern Europe,” he said.
“Those who claim our transatlantic partnership is unraveling — or those who hope it might unravel — could not be more wrong,” Kerry said. “They forget — or they never understood — why we came together in the first place: not just to sail along in the best of times but to have each other’s backs when the seas are rough.”
In remarks to the conference earlier Saturday, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that relations between Russia and the West have effectively entered a new Cold War.
“As we see it,” he said, “NATO’s political line toward Russia remains unfriendly and closed. I can say even more harshly: We have slipped into a new Cold War era.” Due to Ukraine-related sanctions and the drop in oil prices, he said, European Union trade with Russia has dropped by nearly half, to $265 billion.
Medvedev also challenged Western assertions that Russian airstrikes in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have killed civilians there. “No one has yet presented any evidence of our airstrikes hitting the civilian populations,” he said.
He warned the West “not to threaten a ground operation in Syria” and said that “regular cooperation between Russia and the United States will be crucial. And I mean regular — every day.”
While Russia has insisted that its Syrian airstrikes are directed toward the same “terrorists” as U.S. strikes against the Islamic State, Kerry said that “to date, the vast majority, in our opinion, of Russia’s attacks have been against legitimate opposition groups” fighting Assad’s forces and that civilians continue to be struck.
Russia has repeatedly appealed for U.S. coordination, including shared intelligence, in what it describes as a joint fight against the Islamic State. The Obama administration has said it is uninterested in cooperation until the airstrikes against opposition forces and civilians stop.
The conflicting U.S. and Russian views of reality — and the growing overlap between the anti-Islamic State effort and Syrian civil war — are likely to clash directly this week, as the two countries head a task force to implement a Syrian cease-fire agreed to early Friday by a group of 17 nations supporting one side or the other in the civil war.
Under the deal, both sides in the fighting are to allow immediate humanitarian access to areas that have been cut off to all aid, primarily by the Syrian government. Fighting is to end next Friday, followed by a resumption of political negotiations between the government and U.S.-backed opposition forces.
“To adhere to the agreement it made,” Kerry said, “we think it is critical that Russia’s targeting change.”