About 200 Syrian opposition fighters will begin military training next month in Turkey, despite ongoing Turkish disagreement with the Obama administration over the enemy they will combat when they finish the six-week course.
“We plan to train and equip around 2,000 over the year” in a joint U.S.-Turkish program, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in an interview Monday. While fighting against the Islamic State is a “priority,” he said, the opposition force will also combat the Syrian military of Bashar al-Assad.
Congress and the administration have authorized U.S.-funded training of the “moderate” Syrian opposition only to fight against the Islamic State.
For now, the two sides appear willing to paper over their disagreement to get the long-delayed program up and running. Much will depend on where the newly trained fighters are inserted back into Syria — an issue that has not yet been decided — and how much operational control any outside power has over them once they are inside.
In addition to Turkey, the Syrian opposition fighters will be trained in separate programs in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar.
Cavusoglu, on a brief visit here to discuss Syria and other issues with Secretary of State John F. Kerry and congressional leaders, emphasized that Turkey and the United States, despite their differences, have arrived at a point where they are able to speak frankly and productively to each other.
“We are partners and allies,” he said. “We don’t have to agree on every single issue.”
Another area of disagreement is a pending Turkish proposal, endorsed late last year by many in the administration but still awaiting a White House decision, on U.S. air cover for a “safe zone” for fighters and refugees inside northern Syria, along the Turkish border.
Turkey has long been pushing for the zone, which Cavusoglu said could provide a haven for up to 12 million Syrians who have fled to neighboring countries or been displaced inside their own.
“The issue is how and who is going to enhance the security for this safe zone,” he said. “There are different opinions in D.C. coming from different offices.”
“Our proposal is still on the table, and we have been reminding” the administration, Cavusoglu said. Turkey, a NATO ally, has said it would send ground forces into the area, along with other, unspecified coalition members, and that the United States could use its nearby Incirlik air base for armed airplanes and drones to protect it. Use of the base is currently only allowed for unarmed surveillance flights.
The State Department has largely endorsed the proposal. Some in the Pentagon have voiced support for different iterations of the plan, depending in part on whether the safe zone is established on the western part of the border — where Turkey would like protection for the Syrian city of Aleppo — or in the east, to eliminate a crucial haven from which the Islamic State could resupply its forces in neighboring Iraq.
“The main problem overall is still that we don’t have a clear, comprehensive strategy to bring stability to Syria and Iraq,” Cavusoglu said. “It’s obvious that airstrikes are not enough. . . . We are in favor of ground operations,” he said. “The United States and some allies believe that the opposition that we are supporting and going to train and equip can do that. The question is, how long will it take to succeed?”
On other matters, Cavusoglu said that Turkey has taken steps to reduce the transit of foreign fighters passing through its territory to join the Islamic State, but that European intelligence-
sharing must improve.
“We need more cooperation,” he said. Of 1,300 foreign fighters Turkey captured and deported over the past two years, he said, “for about half of them, there was no information” in advance from their country of origin.
On other issues, Cavusoglu said the government strongly supports airstrikes by a Saudi-led coalition against Houthi rebels in Yemen, although Ankara has declined a Saudi request for direct military participation.
He said Turkey also strongly supports the nuclear framework agreement negotiated with Iran but continues to be concerned about Iran’s “sectarian ambitions and policy” in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere. In a visit to Tehran early this month, he said, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the Iranians “very frankly that what they are doing in the region is not in the interest of anybody.”
Cavusoglu’s visit comes on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the April 24 commemoration of the slaughter of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turkey in the early years of World War I. Armenia, and the worldwide Armenian diaspora, have long condemned the killing as a genocide, a term that Turkey strongly objects to and refuses to use.
As he has been every year of his administration, President Obama is under strong pressure from outspoken lawmakers and advocacy groups to use the term in his annual message on the killing. He promised that he would do so during his 2008 campaign, but never has.
Earlier this month, Pope Francis spoke of “genocide” during a memorial service for the victims; Turkey responded by recalling its ambassador to the Vatican. The European Parliament has also called on Turkey to acknowledge that a genocide was committed.
Calling genocide “not a generic word” but “a legal term,” Cavusoglu said it was “not up . . . to politicians to judge whether it was a genocide or not.”
“If the administration changes its approach on this issue to the benefit of the Armenian side, naturally it will have a detrimental effect on Turkish-U.S. relations,” he said. “That is not our preference. We have invested a lot in this relationship.”