Turkish officials on Monday denied the existence of a deal to allow U.S.-led forces battling the Islamic State to conduct operations from bases inside Turkey — an awkward blow for the Obama administration after National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice announced the cooperation ahead of an international strategy session in the fight against the extremists.
The uncertain negotiations over the extent to which Turkey is truly behind that fight will hang in the background Tuesday when President Obama meets at Andrews Air Force Base with defense ministers from more than 20 nations to hammer out details of a long-range plan for defeating the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL.
While Turkey has agreed to join Saudi Arabia as a destination for training vetted Syrian opposition rebels in the fight, Tuesday’s session is expected to focus on which — if any — coalition partners, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others in the region, may commit ground forces to fight the extremists inside Syria and Iraq.
As the plan to train Syrian rebels advances, some lawmakers and national security analysts are raising concerns that the program remains an ill-defined operation in which success may be elusive — and that the challenge of truly “vetting” Syrian rebels will be difficult.
The program’s viability hinges on the Pentagon’s ability to limit the risks associated with training and equipping “acceptable units,” said Anthony Cordesman, a leading national security scholar at the Center for Strategic International Studies in Washington.
“You’re seeking people that you can use with some probability that they can serve the purpose,” he said, noting that — as it now stands — the Pentagon’s program for training the Syrian rebels does not require them to swear allegiance to the U.S.
SEE ALSO: Iran’s Khamenei: U.S., ‘wicked’ Britain created Islamic State
Alternatively, it requires that they show an enthusiasm for fighting against both the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Islamic State, Mr. Cordesman said. “That makes the task a lot easier than seeking the perfect unit.”
Pentagon officials say they’re in the “very early” stages of developing protocols for vetting 5,000 Free Syrian Army rebels who would be trained in Saudi Arabia. “We know it will be a challenge, but the train-and-equip program is a long-term investment, and one that will require some time on the front end for infrastructure development, planning and logistics,” a Pentagon spokeswoman said.
While Congress approved temporary spending for the training in September, several lawmakers remain skeptical. Rep. Mo Brooks, Alabama Republican, is wary of any plan to train “so-called moderate Muslims to be America’s surrogate army.”
“The word ‘moderate’ certainly has no chance of applying in an honest way,” Mr. Brooks said. “By our standards, there are no moderates as we understand the word in Syria.”
Others are more optimistic. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Illinois Republican and an Air Force Reserve pilot, says he believes U.S. military officials can and should forge an intelligence-sharing operation with the Syrian rebels.
Mr. Kinzinger said he recently met with Syrian opposition fighters in Turkey — a meeting that occurred “absent of State Department influence” so Free Syrian Army rebels, known as the FSA, would feel free to talk about their loss of confidence in the United States.
“One of their big complaints is we’re bombing stuff and having no communication with them,” Mr. Kinzinger said. “Lately, there’s been rumors of us almost bombing FSA positions.”
Separately, he said “there is concern that as we hit ISIS positions that those areas may be filled not by the league of the FSA but the Bashar al-Assad regime, which will grow more powerful and attack our boots on the ground, the FSA.”
Others say the rebels themselves want more of a say in the Pentagon’s training plan. Oubai Shahbandar, a strategic communications adviser to Syria’s main opposition coalition, said several rebel leaders recently met with U.S. officials in Jordan and Turkey to discuss ways to expedite the plan.
“The Syrian opposition and preeminent Shammar tribal leader Sheikh Ahmad al Jarba presented a straightforward proposition to the U.S. and Arab allies: Link the U.S.-supported Sunni Arab tribal alliance program in Iraq that is fighting extremists with their Syrian brethren that are taking the brunt of the fight against ISIS in its home territory in eastern Syria,” he told The Times.
Speculation over the need for such ground forces has soared in recent days, as Islamic State fighters appear to be close to seizing full control of the small city of Khobani in northern Syria. Kurdish peshmerga forces, backed by Washington, continued to struggle to hold off the extremists’ advance on Monday. If the city falls, it will put a third crossing along the Syria-Turkey border under Islamic State control.
Turkish military forces are on the Turkish side of the border. But encouraging their involvement remains complicated by long-standing and violent rifts between Turkey and the Kurdish peshmerga — elements of which are officially listed by Turkey and Washington as terrorist outfits.
While such factors may help to explain Turkey’s reluctance to join the fight against the Islamic State, Ms. Rice suggested Sunday that Ankara was finally ready to deepen its cooperation.
The Obama administration has “not asked for the Turks to send ground forces of their own into Syria,” the national security adviser said during an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
But, Ms. Rice claimed, Turkish authorities “have said that their facilities inside Turkey can be used by the coalition forces, American and otherwise, to engage in activities inside of Iraq and Syria.”
Her remarks triggered swift pushback from Turkish officials, who responded Monday by leaking statements to several news organizations that no such agreement has yet been reached.
Specifically, according to Reuters, sources in the Turkish prime minister’s office said there’s still no deal to allow the U.S. Air Force to use its own air base near Incirlik — in southern Turkey — to attack Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq.
The sources did, however, say talks toward such a deal were ongoing, and they confirmed Ms. Rice’s other claim: that Turkey will join Saudi Arabia as a destination for training vetted Syrian rebels in the fight against the Islamic State, as well as the battle to drive Mr. Assad from power.
With those factors making headlines Monday, the White House sought to downplay the notion that Ms. Rice had mischaracterized the situation during hearing comments over the weekend.
Pressed on the issue by The Washington Times, a senior administration official said only that, “We are grateful for steps Turkey is taking to support [a] coalition, including hosting part of the train[ing] and equip[ping] program for the Syrian opposition.”
“As announced,” the official said, “[we] are sending teams out to advance discussions and explore other ways we can work together, including on the aspects that NSA Rice referenced in her comments this weekend.”