Officials: US assists Turkey on Syria through secret talks, not troop deployment

12 October 2012 / FATMA DEMIRELLI, İSTANBUL – Zaman – The United States and Turkey are coordinating a response to risks emanating from the Syrian crisis through closed-door talks within a working group mechanism, Turkish officials said on Friday, dismissing categorically any role for US troops in the joint effort.

The question of possible US troop deployment emerged when US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said in remarks on Wednesday that the US was “providing whatever assistance they need to deal with the problems they [the Turks] are incurring,” without elaborating. He made the statement right after confirming that the US deployed troops to Jordan to help the Jordanian authorities handle the Syrian crisis, in response to a question over whether the US was assisting Turkey along the Syrian border as well.

Later the British daily the Times reported that US, as well as French and British, special forces had been at the İncirlik airbase in southern Turkey for weeks, helping to contain the fallout from the war in Syria and getting ready in case the Syrian regime loses control of its large chemical weapons stockpile.

Speaking to Today’s Zaman on Friday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Selçuk Ünal said the report on US troop presence was “definitely not true.” In an earlier statement, the Turkish General Staff also denied the report, saying such claims are untrue.

The possibility of US troop deployment on the Turkish border has raised the possibility of US involvement in the escalating Syrian crisis and led to concerns over the spread of the turmoil in Syria. Panetta said on Wednesday that US troops had been sent to Jordan to help the Jordanians handle a refugee inflow from Syria and to monitor Syria’s chemical and biological weapons sites as well as to try and develop the Jordanian military’s operational capabilities in the event of any escalation of violence on the Syrian-Jordanian border. Panetta, speaking at the end of a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels, said the US has “reached out to Turkey as well” and that the US has been “in discussion with them on the very same issues, assisting them on the humanitarian side.”

“They are also obviously concerned about CBW [chemical and biological weapons] sites as well. So we work with them as well to do what we can to monitor that situation and we are providing whatever assistance they need to deal with the problems they are incurring,” said Panetta, without elaborating.

Asked to elaborate on the type of assistance offered by the US, Turkish officials referred to a Turkish-US working group that was announced during a visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to İstanbul in August. When announcing the formation of the group, which brings together US and Turkish military and intelligence officials as well as diplomats, Clinton said a “range of contingencies” was discussed, including the possible use of chemical weapons by the Bashar al-Assad government.

A Turkish official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said officials from the two NATO allies have been discussing the risks pointed out by Panetta in the joint working group meetings, which the official said are not always announced to the public.

The group met at least twice so far, in late August and in September. The September meeting took place in Ankara, like the first one, and the Turkish and US delegations were headed by Foreign Ministry Deputy Undersecretary Halit Çevik and the assistant secretary of defense for International Security Affairs, Derek Chollet, respectively.

The Turkish official said the participants of each meeting may vary according to issues discussed. In addition to discussing the issues of refugees and intelligence sharing, the meetings also focus on ways to prevent the terrorist groups such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and al-Qaeda from benefiting from the security situation in Syria. Officials at the US Embassy in Ankara declined to comment on Panetta’s remarks. The US involvement in the Syrian crisis was on the agenda back in June. The New York Times then said that a small number of CIA officers were operating secretly in southern Turkey, helping allies decide which Syrian opposition fighters across the border will receive arms to fight the Syrian government, a report that has not been confirmed by Turkish or US officials.