Foreign minister says primary role in any ground operation will be eliminating extremists, not removing Bashar al-Assad.
Saudi forces participating in any U.S.-led ground operation in Syria would focus on fighting the Islamic State not the Damascus regime, the kingdom’s foreign minister told AFP on Thursday.
In an interview in Riyadh, Adel al-Jubeir also said separate Saudi-led military operations in Yemen would carry on until the country’s government is fully restored to power and that the kingdom would not cut oil production despite falling prices. On Syria, Jubeir said any Saudi force on the ground would make the battle against I.S. its priority, despite Riyadh’s fierce opposition to President Bashar al-Assad.
“Saudi Arabia has expressed its readiness to send special forces to Syria as part of the coalition, with the goal of eliminating Daesh. This is the mission and the responsibility,” he said. “If they enter Syria, these forces will work in the framework of the international coalition to fight Daesh, there will be no unilateral operations,” he said in the interview at his ministry.
Asked if the mission could be expanded to include operations against Assad’s forces, Jubeir said: “This would be something the international coalition would have to make a decision on.”
Saudi Arabia has backed rebel forces fighting Assad in the country’s nearly five-year civil war and insists he must leave office for the conflict to be resolved. As regime forces assisted by Russian airstrikes made major advances, Assad told AFP last week that his eventual goal is to retake all of Syria.
Jubeir responded that Assad “said many things since the start of the crisis in Syria. A lot of what he said is unrealistic.”
The U.N. has begun delivering aid to besieged Syrian cities under an international deal struck last week that also hoped for a ceasefire within seven days. “It’s a very delicate situation and we’re watching it day by day. We will find out if Bashar al-Assad and his allies are serious about a political process or not,” Jubeir said.
Saudi Arabia has been part of the U.S.-led coalition bombing I.S. in Syria and Iraq since late 2014. Its participation declined after it launched strikes against Iran-backed Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen last March.
Some analysts said the kingdom would not be able or willing to send many forces to a possible U.S.-led operation in Syria because it is mired in the nearly year-long effort supporting Yemen’s government. “It’s a matter of time before the international coalition in Yemen succeeds in restoring the legitimate government… in control of all of Yemen’s territory,” Jubeir said. “The support for the legitimate government will continue until the objectives are achieved or until an agreement is reached politically to achieve those objectives.”
Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Arab allies began airstrikes against the Shia Houthis after they seized control of large parts of Yemen and forced President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi’s government to flee the capital Sanaa. The Houthis have also been supported by forces loyal to ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Jubeir said the coalition had helped the government reclaim more than three-quarters of Yemeni territory, open up supply lines for aid and “put enough pressure on the Houthis and Saleh for them to seriously consider a political process.”
He dismissed claims that Saudi Arabia was mired in the conflict. “A very, very small part of our total military is involved in Yemen and it is not bogged down,” Jubeir said.
Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have accused Iran of interference throughout the Middle East and Riyadh cut ties with Tehran in a major diplomatic row earlier this year. “If Iran wants to have good relations with Saudi Arabia there is a need for Iran to change its behavior and to change its policies. Mere words will not do the job,” the minister said. He also rejected any suggestion that Saudi Arabia feels abandoned by its longtime ally Washington following Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers.
“Absolutely not,” the former ambassador to the U.S. said. “I don’t see any reduction of that relationship. If anything I see a strengthening of that relationship as time goes by.”