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Turkey May Send Ground Troops into Syria, but Not Unilaterally

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that Turkey would consider sending ground forces into Syria to fight the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL/IS), but not unilaterally.

In an interview airing on the network this week, Davutoglu responded to the possibility of Turkish ground forces entering Syria, a nation ruled by Turkish government arch-rival Bashar al-Assad, to fight the Islamic State with a tentative, but positive, answer.

“[A] ground forces [campaign] is something which we have to talk [about] together and share. As I told you in our last interview, there’s a need of an integrated strategy, including an air campaign and ground troops,” he told Amanpour, according to Turkish newspaper Hurriyet. He responded, “Yes, of course” when asked specifically if ground troops would be involved in this conversation.

Davutoglu added the caveat that “Turkey alone cannot take on this burden,” but was open to joining a “coalition.”

Hurriyet cites an independent Turkish government source echoing Davutoglu’s remarks: that the Turkish government would indeed consider supplementing its airstrikes in Syria with ground troops if necessary, though there is little enthusiasm for involving the Turkish military in a ground war there. Without support from the UN Security Council or NATO, Turkish ground action in Syria is unlikely.

American intelligence publisher Stratfor assesses the situation similarly, and notes an added wrinkle to the possibility of Turkish ground troops in Syria: the presence of Russia. “Such a campaign would necessitate more communication and coordination between Russian forces and Turkish and U.S. forces,” their assessment notes, stating that Turkish troops in Syria without American backing is an unlikely scenario. “Failure here would greatly complicate any ground operations and would introduce a potentially unacceptable risk of clashes with Russia, a scenario both Turkey and the United States want to avoid,” it adds.

Turkey has already had a few close calls with the Russian military. Russian aircraft allegedly flying into Syria to conduct airstrikes against the Islamic State – but more often than not hitting anti-Assad militias operating in areas with minimal ISIS presence – illegally entered Turkish airspace at least twice in early October. The Russian military blamed a calculation error and bad weather for the incursion, though these explanations were largely disregarded by both the Turkish government and NATO leadership.

Coordinating with Russia on the ground may be even more complex than in the skies, and, despite their assurances that only advisers have entered Syria to help Assad’s soldiers, reports indicate that Russian soldiers are fighting on the ground in the Mideast nation.

A group of Russian journalists cited by Reuters claim that at least three men identified as “serving or former Russian soldiers” have been identified through satellite photographs near Aleppo and Homs, areas where much of the fighting following the start of the Syrian Civil War has occurred. American officials tell Reuters that Russia may have up to 4,000 forces in Syria that it claims are there in an “advisory” capacity to the Syrian military.

The Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), the Russian group identifying the ground forces, said:

Although we still don’t have indisputable evidence of Russian servicemen taking a direct part in the fighting on the ground in Syria, we believe the situation observed contradicts the claims of Russian officials that Russian troops are not taking part and are not planning to take part in ground operations.

Turkey officially entered the war against the Islamic State somewhat late in its takeover of much of Syria, initially allowing American aircraft to use a Turkish airbase to fly missions into Syria in July and subsequently conducting airstrikes itself. These moves followed a terrorist attack in July in the city of Suruç on a group of Kurdish activists who were planning on crossing the border to Kobani, Syria, a besieged border post saved from ISIS control by Kurdish forces earlier this year. Many have questioned Turkey’s commitment to fighting the Islamic State, particularly Kurdish groups that have alleged that most airstrikes have targeted the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Marxist, U.S.-designated terrorist group, and not ISIS.

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