Turkey and the United States have reached a tentative agreement to train and equip fighters from the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA), Turkish and US foreign ministry officials have announced.
“I can confirm that we have reached an agreement in principle with Turkey on training and equipping the Syrian opposition groups,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on Tuesday.
“Negotiations have been concluded and an agreement text will be signed with the US regarding the training of the Free Syrian Army in the coming period,” Turkey’s foreign ministry spokesman Tanju Bilgic said on Tuesday.
“The agreement is expected to be put into practice in March,” he said, adding that details of the deal will be announced “in the coming days”.
Three US officials, speaking to the Reuters news agency on condition of anonymity, said the training could begin in mid-March.
The US military has said it was planning to send more than 400 troops, including special operations forces, to train Syrian moderates at sites outside Syria as part of the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Reuters reported.
According to the private Turkish channel NTV, the “first phase” of the plan includes the training of 2,000 men by a joint Turkish-US team within Turkey.
The aim of the deal is for Turkey, as well as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to train as many as 15,000 men in three years, the NTV said.
Turkey hopes the move will bolster the weakened and divided Syrian opposition in their struggle against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The FSA is seen by Turkey as a key actor in the Syrian conflict, but the group has been riven by divisions and suffered setbacks at the hands of government forces and other rebel factions.
A deal between Ankara and Washington would be a positive development between the two long-standing allies, despite strains over Middle Eastern policy.
Turkey has been a reluctant partner in the US-led coalition against ISIL, refusing a frontline military role despite its 1,200-km border with Iraq and Syria.
However, Ankara allowed Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Peshmerga forces to access its territory to enter Kobane in Syria, which has recently been cleared of ISIL fighters.
Ankara wants Assad’s departure to be the focus in Syria, while Washington’s priority remains battling ISIL.