US says Turkey will train moderate Syrian rebels but presses for details
White House says Turkish government has agreed to help but is yet to commit to allowing training on its soil.
The White House is continuing to press Turkey on how it will train Syrian rebels for the fight against Isis but has said questions remain about the level of support Ankara is willing to give.
The US defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, said the US wanted to know how far Turkey was willing to go in helping train and equip moderate opposition fighters whose ultimate goal is to topple Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, including whether it will conduct training on its own land.
Turkey has agreed to support efforts to train and equip the Syrian opposition but the US has said it does not know whether Ankara is willing to do the training inside Turkey itself. Saudi Arabia has agreed to host training facilities for Syrian rebels on its territory. US officials are still discussing the details with Turkish officials.
“The specifics that go with train and equip locations, contributions, trainers will be part of that conversation,” Hagel said in Colombia during a tour of South America. “Part of those discussions will include how far Turkey is willing to go. Certainly one of those questions will be, will they be willing to provide training locations.”
Hagel said a joint team from US Central Command and US European Command would travel to Turkey in the coming week to meet with officials there and discuss the different ways Turkey could contribute to the effort to degrade the Islamic State group.
Assad’s forces continue to fight opposition forces but the Syrian civil war, now in its fourth year has, been eclipsed by the Isis militants’ onslaught and, in recent days, their battle to overrun the city of Kobani along Syria’s border with Turkey.
In recent months the extremists have taken control of territory across Iraq and Syria at lightning speed. US and coalition forces have been launching air strikes near Kobani, which officials believe could fall to the militants.
The US has been urging Turkey to get more involved in the battle against the extremists. Ankara has hesitated, persistently asking the US to set up a safe zone along Turkey’s border with Syria. Hagel said earlier that such a zone was not actively being considered, although US officials were open to discussing it.
Hagel said on Thursday that in addition to helping train the Syrian opposition, the US also would like to get access to the Turkish air base at Incirlik in southern Turkey as a base from which to launch strikes against the Islamic militants. Asked if Turkey had agreed to give the US access, Hagel said only that “basing rights would be helpful” and would be part of the discussions.
The head of the US-led coalition, retired general John Allen, and US pointman on Iraq, Brett McGurk, have spent two days in Turkey pressing the Nato ally to engage militarily against Isis.
After the meetings, US state department spokeswoman Marie Harf said: “Turkey has agreed to support, train and equip efforts for the moderate Syrian opposition.”
Allen and McGurk also met with leaders of the Syrian opposition in Ankara.
Harf said a US military team would visit Turkey next week to meet with their Turkish military counterparts. “Turkey is well positioned to contribute” to the coalition, Harf said, citing its potential to co-operate militarily with its well-trained and equipped armed forces, halt terrorist financing, counter the flow of foreign fighters into the region and provide humanitarian assistance.