Middle East

Hagel in Turkey to discuss US-led coalition

Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan shakes hands with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during their meeting in Ankara September 8, 2014. (REUTERS/Kayhan Ozer/Presidential Press Office)

ANKARA: U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will sound out Turkish leaders Monday on "how far they're willing to go" in a U.S.-led coalition against ISIS despite the militant group's holding of Turkish hostages and domestic security fears, a U.S. official said.

Turkey was the only Muslim nation in a "core coalition" of 10 countries which met on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Newport, Wales last week. President Barack Obama said he would welcome Ankara's cooperation after meeting Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan Friday.

Hagel hopes to follow up on that conversation in talks today with Erdogan, as well as Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz. More high-level U.S. officials are expected to visit in the coming weeks.

"Part of the point of this visit is to follow up ... to really see how far they're willing to go, understanding that they have tremendous national security challenges at home - just given the refugee problem and then of course this hostage situation," the official told reporters traveling with Hagel.

An ally in the U.S.-led NATO military alliance, Turkey has sensitive relations with sometimes unstable neighbors, bordering not only Syria, the origin of the ISIS threat, but Iraq, where the Islamist group took dozens of Turks hostage.

ISIS is holding some 46 Turkish citizens, including diplomats seized from the Turkish consulate in Mosul when it overran Iraq's second-largest city in June.

Turkey is also wrestling with the second-highest Syrian refugee population after Lebanon, with more than 840,000 refugees, according to U.N. figures.

But that close proximity to the conflict also make Turkey's support vital, the U.S. official said.

"By geography, Turkey is going to be absolutely indispensable to the ongoing fight against (ISIS), because of just where they sit, the access we currently already have militarily and the cooperation that we have militarily," the senior U.S. defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Still, reflecting the sensitivities, the official declined to discuss any Turkish restrictions on U.S. military activity.

For their part, Turkish officials have privately stressed that none of the U.S. aircraft attacking targets in Iraq came from Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey.

One issue expected to come up in Hagel's talks are shared concerns about halting the flow of foreign militants, including many from the United States and Western Europe, who have crossed Turkey's territory to join the fight in Syria.

"They also are very worried about foreign fighters ... and how the extremist threat could blow back on them," the official said.

The official declined to articulate what might be asked specifically of Turkey but noted broad needs across the coalition, including resupplying local forces battling ISIS on the ground, as well as training, refueling and airlift.

"Those are things that a lot of countries can contribute to. Turkey, by the fact of its geography, is inevitably a partner," the official said.

"It's got to be a partner, it won't work without Turkey."

 

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