U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Ankara Friday to try to convince the NATO ally to participate in the planned military campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a day after Turkey said it would not allow its air bases to be used for strikes on the extremists.
The top U.S. diplomat is touring the Middle East to rally support for President Barack Obama’s anti-terrorism strategy, which involved striking ISIS on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi frontier.
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Turkey, a NATO member and Washington's key ally in the region, is reluctant to take part in combat operations against ISIS, or allow a U.S.-led coalition to attack jihadists from its territory.
On the eve of the visit, a Turkish official told AFP: "Our hands and arms are tied because of the hostages."
The official added that Turkey will "not be involved in any armed operation but will entirely concentrate on humanitarian operations."
ISIS militants hold 49 Turks hostage, including diplomats and children, abducted from the Turkish consulate in Mosul in Iraq in June.
The visit comes a day after 10 Arab states, including heavyweight Saudi Arabia, agreed in Jeddah to rally behind Washington in the fight against IS.
But it remains far from clear what role individual nations will play and while he confirmed France’s commitment to use military force in Iraq, Kerry declined to say whether France
would join a similar campaign in Syria.
That follows conflicting reports in key ally Britain over its potential role, with Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday saying he has not ruled out military action in Syria after his foreign secretary said Britain would not take part in any air strikes there.
“It is entirely premature and frankly inappropriate at this point in time to start laying out one country by one country what individual nations are going to do,” said Kerry, who travels to Cairo on Saturday, adding building a coalition would take time.
On arriving in Ankara, Kerry said that the United States would provide an additional $500 million (385 million euros) in humanitarian aid to victims of the war in Syria, bringing total American assistance to $2.9 billion since the start of the conflict in 2011.
"This is the largest funding announcement made by the United States in response to the largest appeal the United Nations has ever issued," a statement said.
U.S. officials emphasized that Turkey could help in other ways, without pledging to join the nascent military coalition.
"The Turks have played an extraordinary role on humanitarian aspects of the situation ... and they are going to play and have been playing a pivotal role in our efforts to crack down on foreign fighter facilitation and counter terrorist finance," a senior U.S. State Department official said ahead of the talks.
"We consider our approach to the stability and security of Syria and Iraq and to the campaign against ISIL to be holistic and include lines of effort well beyond military action," the official said, using the acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, the group's former name.
Obama's plan to fight ISIS simultaneously in Iraq and Syria thrusts the United States directly into the midst of two different wars, in which nearly every country in the region has a stake, alliances have shifted and strategy is dominated by Islam's 1,300-year-old rift between Sunnis and Shi'ites.
ISIS is made up of Sunni militants, who are fighting against a Shi'ite-led government in Iraq and a government in Syria led by members of a Shi'ite offshoot sect. It also battles against rival Sunni Islamists and more moderate Sunni groups in Syria, and Kurds on both sides of the border.
From the early days of the Syrian conflict, Turkey has backed mainly Sunni rebels fighting against President Bashar al-Assad. Although it is alarmed by Islamic State's rise, it is wary about any military action that might weaken Assad's foes.
It is also concerned about strengthening Kurds in Iraq and Syria. Turkey's own Kurdish militants waged a three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state and are engaged in a delicate peace process.
Pro-government newspapers on Friday welcomed Ankara's reluctance to take a front-line role in the coalition, questioning whether U.S.-led military action was the answer and drawing parallels to 2003, when Turkey's parliament rejected a U.S. request to use Turkish territory to invade Iraq.
"The U.S. administration's air strikes are notorious in terms of the civilian deaths they cause," wrote Hilal Kaplan, a columnist in the pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper.
"To prevent such a strategy from leaving Sunnis who are already fed up with the oppressive Shi'ite hegemony in Iraq more dependent on ISIS is something that needs to be discussed."
Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil told Reuters some Arab states in Jeddah had proposed expanding the campaign to fight other Islamist groups besides ISIS, a move Turkey would also probably oppose.
Turkey's support for the rebels fighting Assad, including groups that some Western allies balked at backing, has laid it open to accusations it aided radical Islamists and contributed to Islamic State's rise, a notion Ankara strongly rejects.
Francis Ricciardone, who was until late June the U.S. ambassador in Turkey, said on Thursday Ankara had supported groups including the Nusra Front, al Qaeda's Syrian branch.
"We ultimately had no choice but to agree to disagree," Ricciardone told a conference call arranged by the Atlantic Council think-tank on Thursday. "The Turks frankly worked with groups for a period, including al Nusra, whom we finally designated as we're not willing to work with."
[With Reuters and AFP]