TOLEMAIDA MILITARY BASE, Colombia (AP) — U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Friday that the U.S. wants to know how far Turkey is willing to go in helping train and equip moderate opposition fighters trying to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, 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 U.S. doesn't yet know whether Ankara is willing to do the training inside Turkey itself. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has agreed to host training facilities for Syrian rebels on its territory. U.S. 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, his first stop on a six-day trip to 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 U.S. Central Command and U.S. European Command will travel to Turkey next week to meet with officials there and discuss the different ways Turkey can contribute to the effort to degrade the Islamic State group militants.
Assad's forces continue to fight opposition forces, but the Syrian civil war — now in its fourth year — has been eclipsed by Islamic militants' battle to overrun the city of Kobani along Syria's border with Turkey. In recent months, the Islamic extremists have taken control of territory across Iraq and Syria at lightning speed. U.S. and coalition forces have been launching airstrikes near Kobani, which officials believe could fall to the militants.
The U.S. has been urging Turkey to get more involved in the battle against the extremists. Ankara has hesitated and has persistently asked the U.S. 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 U.S. officials are open to discussing it.
Hagel said Thursday that in addition to helping train the Syrian opposition, the U.S. 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 U.S. access to Incirlik, Hagel said only that "basing rights would be helpful" and that it will be part of the discussions.
His comments came during a press conference at the air base here, where he watched a demonstration by Colombia's special operations forces.
Hagel also is stopping in Chile and Peru where he will attend a conference of defense ministers from the Americas.