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RIYADH (Web Desk) – Soldiers from 20 countries have gathered in Saudi Arabia for massive military exercises lasting 18 days, the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said.


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The fresh Saudi move comes as Riyadh has openly warned Syrian President Bashar Assad that he will be toppled.

Read: Bahrain to follow Saudi Arabia in sending troops to Syria

The Saudi state agency made the announcement on Sunday, adding that participating troops will begin arriving in “the next few hours.”

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The oil-rich nation described the exercises as “the largest and most important” military drills in the region’s history.

The “Northern Thunder” exercise will take place in the north of the country and will include air, sea and land forces. The agency added it will show that Riyadh and its allies “stand united in confronting all challenges and preserving peace and stability in the region.”

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Among the participants will be Arab and African countries. The US and other Western powers have not been invited.

The announcement came as Saudi Arabia, which is a member of the US-led coalition against Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL), deployed military jets and personnel to Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base, Russia Today reported.

The base is already used by the US Air Force for their planes conducting sorties in Syria.

TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY IAN TIMBERLAKE A picture taken on November 16, 2015 shows a Saudi F-15 fighter jet landing at the Khamis Mushayt military airbase, some 880 km from the capital Riyadh, as the Saudi army conducts operations over Yemen. AFP PHOTO / FAYEZ NURELDINE === PHOTO TAKEN DURING A GUIDED MILITARY TOUR === / AFP / FAYEZ NURELDINE

While Riyadh says this necessary to “intensify” its operations against Islamic State in Syria, the move has sparked concern that the Saudis are getting ready for a full-scale ground invasion of war-torn Syria, where they are backing anti-government rebels battling Syrian President Assad.

In a recent interview, the Saudi Foreign Minister flatly stated that Assad will be toppled if he does not leave during a political transition.

“Bashar al-Assad will leave – have no doubt about it. He will either leave by a political process or he will be removed by force,” Adel al-Jubeir told CNN.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition that has been bombing Houthi rebels in Yemen since March. Riyadh went to war in Yemen to restore ousted President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who fled from the Shia Houthi rebels after his two-year term expired in January.