Foreign troops in Syria would return home 'in coffins,' foreign minister warns

DAMASCUS, Syria -- Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem warned Saturday that Saudi or other foreign ground troops entering Syria would "return home in wooden coffins," and called on rebel groups fighting a massive government offensive in the north to "come to their senses" and lay down their weapons.

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His comments came after Saudi Arabia said earlier this week it would be willing to send troops as part of a U.S.-led military campaign against Islamic State extremists. The group controls large parts of Syria and Iraq.

Al-Moallem said conventional wisdom and logic would suggest the entry of Saudi troops is unlikely, but that "with the crazy Saudi leadership nothing is far-fetched."

"Any ground intervention in Syria, without the consent of the Syrian government, will be considered an aggression that should be resisted by every Syrian citizen," he told a news conference in Damascus. "I regret to say that they will return home in wooden coffins."

He repeated the line three times during the one-hour press conference, saying it applies to anyone who attacks Syria with ground troops. Russia's Defence Ministry on Thursday said it had "reasonable grounds" to suspect Turkey is making intensive preparations for a military invasion of Syria.

Al-Moallem's comments capped a week that saw the collapse of U.N.-led efforts to launch indirect peace talks between the Syrian government and an opposition delegation in Geneva.

The talks broke down in large part because of Syrian government offensives, including on the outskirts of Aleppo, the country's largest city and one-time commercial centre. The offensive, aimed at encircling rebel strongholds in Aleppo, was backed by intense Russian airstrikes and sent tens of thousands of area residents fleeing toward a closed Turkish border.

Al-Moallem said the government advances signalled that the five-year-old Syria war is nearing its end, although he said there's no telling how long "those who conspire" against Syria will continue to do so.

"I can say, from the achievements for our armed forces ... that we are now on track to end the conflict," he said. "Like it or not, our battlefield achievements indicate that we are headed toward the end of the crisis."

Al-Moallem urged armed opposition groups fighting the government offensive in the area to lay down their weapons. "It is time to return to your senses and come back to the nation's fold, because even your supporters and sponsors have abandoned you," he said.

Opposition representatives have said they cannot be expected to negotiate in Geneva at a time when the Syrian government and its allies, including Russia, are escalating attacks on rebel strongholds.

Al-Moallem dismissed the representatives of the Saudi-backed opposition in Geneva, suggesting they followed orders from Saudi Arabia and were "not real Syrians."

He alleged the opposition never intended to negotiate seriously. "They did not come to have dialogue, they did not have such orders," he said.

Al-Moallem said the Syrian government was ready to have dialogue with Syrians, but without preconditions.

Associated Press writers Zeina Karam and Karin Laub in Beirut contributed to this report.


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