Sevil Erkuş - Hürriyet / Istanbul, May 1 () - Some 123 U.S. soldiers arrived in Turkey as part of a program to train and equip the putatively moderate Syrian opposition, along with weapons that are being transferred to İncirlik Airbase in the southern province of Adana.
Eighty-three of the U.S. soldiers have been deployed at İncirlik Airbase, while 40 of them have been transferred to the Hirfanlı base in the Central Anatolian province of Kırşehir.
A special group of U.S. personnel at İncirlik has been tasked with equipping Syrians. The program, agreed by Ankara and Washington in February, was delayed twice due to disagreements between Turkey and the U.S. on whom to train.
The Syrians who will be trained at Hirfanlı are expected to be transferred to the southern province of Hatay where they will be equipped with necessary briefing for the use of arms, including anti-tank weapons, infantry rifles and machine guns, before travelling to Syria to join fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), according to sources.
Concerned that radicals could infiltrate the trainees of the program, Washington chose to determine a broad group of Syrian opposition members on its own intelligence information, with the option that Ankara could exclude any rebels from the training program.
According to a memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed by U.S. Ambassador to Ankara John Bass and Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu on Feb. 19, Ankara will provide an equal number of trainers to work alongside their American military counterparts.
İncirlik Airbase has been subject to intense negotiations between Turkey and the U.S. for months as Ankara was reluctant to allow combat operations against ISIL from Turkish territory. Ankara avoided becoming a fully fledged part of the anti-ISIL coalition unless Washington agrees to adopt an “integrated strategy” for Syria including the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.
The U.S. had been using four unarmed Predator drones at the airbase for 3.5 years. One of the predators was downed in 2012, with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) claiming responsibility, while another Predator that took off from İncirlik was downed by the Syrian Air Force in Syria in March.
The U.S. deployed three more Predators at İncirlik Airbase in April, bringing the total number to five, but none of them have yet been armed, according to military sources.
Military officials from Turkey and the U.S. have agreed in principle to deploy armed drones at the İncirlik Air Base, as part of the international coalition fighting against ISIL, but political consent of the Turkish government is still pending.
Ankara has long been urging the U.S. to establish safe havens and no-fly zones over Syria as part of negotiations on Turkey’s contribution for the anti-ISIL coalition, though Turkish officials have denied any ties between the use of İncirlik and a no-fly zone.
In a recent interview with daily Vatan on April 23, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said cooperation between Turkey and the U.S. at İncirlik was proceeding based on a cabinet decree.
“Therefore, the use of armed/unarmed Predators for intelligence purposes and other activities is not new. Our cooperation on this issue will be further consolidated. But we have to know these operations will be carried out as part of a comprehensive strategy so that we can allow İncirlik to be used operationally,” he said.
İncirlik has already been hosting U.S. soldiers with several tasks such as operating Predators for intelligence purposes in Syria and Iraq.
The airbase has always played a key role in Turkish-U.S. relations due to its strategic location in the region and has been used by the U.S. in many regional events and operations. İncirlik stands roughly 400 kilometers away from Raqqa, ISIL’s de facto capital in Syria.
The agreement between the Parties to the North Atlantic Treaty Regarding the Status of Their Forces (SOFA) agreement constitutes a basis for the current anti-ISIL cooperation of Turkey and the U.S., according to diplomatic sources.
In 1954, Ankara and Washington signed an agreement concerning the implementation of the SOFA which not only set forth rights and responsibilities between the U.S. and Turkey but also permitted the U.S. to build and use NATO installations in Turkey.
Some 1,283 U.S. soldiers were on duty at İncirlik as of Sept. 30, 2013, according to the Department of Defense Base Structure Report 2014.