Saudi troop deployment in Syria up to U.S.-led coalition: foreign minister

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia said on Sunday that any move to deploy Saudi special forces into Syria would depend on a decision by the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State insurgents. U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Friday he expected both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to send special operations forces to Syria to help local opposition fighters in their campaign to retake the city of Raqqa, Islamic State's de facto capital in Syria. Saudi Arabia on Saturday confirmed it had sent aircraft to NATO-member Turkey's Incirlik air base for the fight against Islamic State militants. "The Kingdom's readiness to provide special forces to any ground operations in Syria is linked to a decision to have a ground component to this coalition against Daesh (Islamic State) in Syria - this U.S.-led coalition - so the timing is not up to us," Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told a news conference with his Swiss counterpart in Riyadh. "With regards to timing of the mission or size of troops, this has yet to be worked out," he added. Major powers agreed in Munich on Friday to a pause in combat in Syria, but Russia pressed on with bombing in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, its ally. Assad has promised to fight until he regains full control of the country. U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending U.S. ground troops to Syria. But Turkey said that both Ankara and Riyadh would support a coalition ground operation. However, the head of air defense forces in Iran, which along with Russia is the main supporter of Assad, said any interference without Syrian consent would fail. "Syria is a big country... which has been fighting terrorists for five years. Any presence there without coordination with that country's government will only lead to a defeat and a fiasco," Brigadier General Farzad Esmaili told Iran's Tasnim news agency. Iran "will spare no effort to provide Syria with advisory assistance in the air defense field" if asked, Esmaili added. Despite the territorial advances made in recent weeks by Assad's forces, backed by Russian air strikes and military assistance by Iran, Jubeir said he did not believe the Syrian president would survive. "Now, he asked for Russia’s help and it will fail in saving Bashar al-Assad," he said. Separately, Jubeir said Switzerland would handle Saudi Arabia's consular affairs in Iran and facilitate Iranian pilgrims coming to the kingdom, following Riyadh's decision to cut diplomatic ties with Tehran. Relations worsened between the regional arch-rivals over Saudi Arabia's Jan. 2 execution of a prominent Saudi Shi'ite cleric. That led Iranian protesters to storm Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran, after which Riyadh severed relations. Jubeir said there was no need for mediation in the rift, citing what he described as Iran's long pattern of interference in regional conflicts. The Islamic Republic said last week that Tehran and Riyadh must overcome their strained relations and work for stability in Syria and the Middle East. (Reporting by Angus McDowall and Dubai newsroom, writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Mark Heinrich)