Istanbul, May 27 () - Turkey and the United States are still discussing technical aspects of possible air support for Syrian rebels trained in Turkey, with no quick formula apparently on the horizon.
“Before everything else, those we have equipped and trained need to enter through a secure area. Expecting them to enter from an area under control of Daesh would be wrong” Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu told in remarks published on May 26, referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The two countries agreed in February to train and equip up to 15,000 Syrians under a $500 million U.S. program designed to add a credible ground force to an air bombing campaign against the militant group.
“Where is more secure? U.S. and Turkish soldiers and intelligence units have been assessing this,” Çavuşoğlu said in an interview with daily Habertürk. “The second issue is providing protection for these persons; especially aerial protection. Whether it would be [in the form of] warning or something else, these are being technically studied.”
His remarks appeared to have been an attempt to clear up confusion stemming from earlier remarks on a planned joint air protection for Syrian rebels by Ankara and Washington.
In remarks printed over the weekend, Çavuşoğlu said the U.S. and Turkey had agreed “in principle” to give air support to some forces from Syria’s mainstream opposition, prompting interpretations that such a move could mark an expansion of U.S. involvement in the conflict.
When questioned by Reuters upon Çavuşoğlu’s remarks, U.S. officials acknowledged ongoing discussions with Turkey about a range of options to step up the fight against ISIL, but said no decisions had been made.
“We’re in ongoing discussions with the Turks across all lines of counter-ISIL efforts. Our understanding is no decisions have been made” said one U.S. defense official who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Washington has so far refrained from committing to enforcing a “safe zone” for Syrian rebels, as it could be seen as a declaration of war on the Syrian state.
The air support would protect Syrian rebel forces who have been trained by a U.S.-led program on Turkish territory, Çavuşoğlu told the pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper during a visit to Seoul.
Çavuşoglu did not go into details on what “in principle” meant or what kind of air power would be provided or by whom.
“They have to be supported via air. If you do not protect them or provide air support, what is the point?” Çavuşoğlu told Daily Sabah. “There is a principle agreement on providing air support. How it is going to be provided is the responsibility of the army.”
The U.S.-led training program has been mired in delays amid media speculation of disagreements between the two NATO allies.
In remarks to Habertürk, Çavuşoğlu touched upon the issue of delay. “We started the train-and-equip program with a low number. The reason for the delay was logistical. It was about installations and personnel that would come from the U.S.,” Çavuşoğlu said.
“Training is being given by our soldiers and U.S. soldiers. It is planned to have 2,000 people finish the train-and-equip program in a year, but I don’t know what the number will be this year” he said.
The program has suffered unexplained delays as the U.S. has resisted Turkish calls for the force to be also prepared to fight the Syrian government, while the sides have also attempted to reach an agreement on whom to train.
The U.S. has also refused a Turkish proposal to enforce a safe area and a no-fly zone in Syria, prompting questions on how trained rebels