WASHINGTON — Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will visit Turkey as the U.S. government tries to build a “coalition of the willing” take on Islamic militants in Syria, the Pentagon announced Friday.
“Turkey is a key NATO ally. And given its border with Syria and Iraq, they share our deep concerns with … the regional threat posed by ISIL,” Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters.
ISIL is one of the acronyms used to refer to the militant group the Islamic State, which has taken over large swathes of Syria and Iraq in recent months.
The U.S. military has been bombing Islamic State targets in Iraq since Aug. 8, and consideration is being given to expanding the air campaign into neighboring Syria.
“Can [the Islamic State] be defeated without addressing that part of their organization which resides in Syria? The answer is no,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey told reporters last week.
The White House has asked the Pentagon to present military options along these lines.
U.S. officials have said that enlisting allies and partners in the region is key to defeating the militants, and have suggested that the Obama administration will attempt to do so before any potential strikes in Syria are launched.
“We want a coalition of the willing. We want to seek partners in this effort,” Kirby said.
Hagel’s stop in Turkey will come near the end of a six-day international trip which begins Wednesday.
“Secretary Hagel has longstanding relationships with Turkey’s leaders, including the newly-inaugurated President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, and he views this visit as an important opportunity to advance our critical relationship,” Kirby said.
Turkey is a long-standing ally of the U.S., but has sometimes opposed American military operations in the Middle East, including the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Getting Ankara’s support for further action against the Islamic State would be a major benefit for the United States.
Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, operated by the U.S. Air Force, could be a launching pad for strikes against the militants or a base for conducting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance flights in Syria.
Persuading the Turkish government to stop allowing Islamic militants to transit through Turkey on their way from Europe to Syria would also be a diplomatic victory. Many believe Turkey has turned a blind eye to the movements because the militants are fighting the Assad regime, which Ankara sees as an enemy.
“States in the region [need to] stop being ambivalent about these extremist groups,” President Barack Obama said at a White House press conference Thursday.
The president announced that he is also sending Secretary of State John Kerry to the region to rally support.
“Our message to the entire region is this should be a wake-up call to Sunni, to Shia, to everybody that a group like [the Islamic State] is beyond the pale; that they have no vision or ideology beyond violence and chaos and the slaughter of innocent people. And as a consequence, we’ve got to all join together — even if we have differences on a range of political issues — to make sure that they’re rooted out,” Obama said.
However, it’s unclear whether the U.S. will be able to rally the kind of support that it’s looking for.
When asked if any regional allies or partners had promised to support a potential American air campaign in Syria, Kirby said, “I’m not aware of any such pledged.”
Kirby noted that governments in the region are sometimes constrained by domestic politics.
“When you work on a coalition of the willing like that, everybody is encouraged to bring what they can and what they’re willing to,” he said. “[But] they all have domestic you know domestic legislative issues they have to deal with … Every country has to decide for themselves in accordance with the wishes of their people what they’re willing to do … It’s not about us mandating it.”