TOLEMAIDA MILITARY BASE, Colombia — U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Friday that the U.S. wants to know how far Turkey is willing to go in helping train and equip moderate opposition fighters trying to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Turkey has agreed to support efforts to train and equip the Syrian opposition, but the U.S. doesn't know if Ankara is willing to do the training inside Turkey itself. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has agreed to host training facilities for Syrian rebels on its territory. U.S. officials are still discussing the details with Turkish officials.
"The specifics that go with train and equip — locations, contributions, trainers — will be part of that conversation," Hagel said in Colombia, his first stop on a six-day trip to South America.
Assad's forces continue to fight opposition forces, but the Syrian civil war — now in its fourth year — has been eclipsed by Islamic militants' battle to overrun the city of Kobani along Syria's border with Turkey. In recent months, the Islamic extremists have taken control of territory across Iraq and Syria at lightning speed. U.S. and coalition forces have been launching airstrikes near Kobani, which officials believe could fall to the militants.
The U.S. has been urging Turkey to get more involved in the battle against the extremists. Ankara has hesitated and has persistently asked the U.S. to set up a safe zone along Turkey's border with Syria. Hagel said earlier that such a zone was not actively being considered, although U.S. officials are open to discussing it.
Hagel said Thursday that in addition to helping train the Syrian opposition, the U.S. also would like to get access to the Turkish air base at Incirlik in southern Turkey as a base from which to launch strikes against the Islamic militants.
Asked if Turkey had agreed to give the U.S. access to Incirlik, Hagel said only that "basing rights would be helpful" and that the U.S. was discussing several ways the Turks could contribute to the battle against the Islamic State group.
Hagel also is stopping in Chile and Peru where he will attend a conference of defense ministers from the Americas.