The United States and Turkey will soon sign an accord to train and equip at least 2,000 Syrian fighters this year, but the two NATO allies have been unable to agree on what enemy the Syrians will be preparing to fight, Turkish officials said Tuesday.
Tanju Bilgic, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said the memorandum of understanding will permit the training of moderate rebels to begin next month. The training site previously announced is Kirsehir-Hirfani, in central Anatolia.
Despite six weeks of talks, the two sides couldn’t agree on whether to train the Syrians to fight the Islamic State extremists, the U.S. priority, or the Assad regime, the Turkish preference. “It’s open,” said a senior Turkish diplomat, who could not be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
Turkey blames Syrian President Bashar Assad for the rise of the Islamic State, which now controls up to one-third of Syrian territory and a similar swath of territory in Iraq, and wanted the Syrians to be trained to fight both the regime and the Islamic State.
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But the Obama administration, which daily sends U.S. aircraft into Syrian airspace to bomb Islamic State targets, says its campaign is aimed only at the Islamic State and is not intended to replace Assad.
The two sides agreed that either can nominate potential trainees and that the other could veto the selection. “If Turkey gives the name of a Syrian, U.S. has to approve and vice versa,” said another Turkish diplomat. “If U.S. gives the name, Turkey has to approve.”
The plan is for U.S. and Turkish military personnel to train groups of 200 to 300 Syrians for up to four months, with priority given to those with experience in armed combat.
The program will last for three years, with the U.S. paying for equipment and Turkey covering the cost of lodging and overhead, the diplomats said. Saudi Arabia and Jordan also have agreed to host training programs, with the stated U.S. aim to create a trained force of 15,000 Syrian rebels over three years.
Turkish officials said the memorandum of understanding is a technical military document that would not have to be submitted either to the Turkish Parliament or to the U.S. Congress.
President Barack Obama and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have been at odds for more than a year over how to respond to the Syrian war, which began four years ago.