March 27, 2015 / 8:09 AM / 2 years ago

Turkey says U.S.-led campaign to train Syria rebels delayed by Washington

Members of al Qaeda's Nusra Front carry their weapons as they move towards their positions near al-Zahra village, north of Aleppo city, November 25, 2014. REUTERS/Hosam Katan

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - A campaign to train Syrian opposition forces to fight hardline Islamic State militants, which was due to start this month, has been delayed by Washington, Turkey’s foreign minister said on Friday.

U.S. officials have said they plan to train about 5,000 Syrian fighters annually for three years as part of a program to counter Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria. Details on the program have been scant, however, and it appears unlikely to start this month.

In Washington, the Pentagon said on Friday that about 2,200 potential recruits for the U.S. military’s training program had been identified so far and more than 400 of those were in the “pre-screening process.” Full screening would follow.

“Because of U.S. (geographic) distance, there has been a minor delay but everything is fine both politically and technically,” Mevlut Cavusoglu said in an interview with Turkey’s NTV television, adding there was “no delay” from the Turkish side.

He did not elaborate on why Washington’s geographical distance had shifted the original timeline.

Ankara hopes the training will bolster the weakened and divided Syrian opposition in its war against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Turkey would also be open to contributions from a third country to the program, Cavusoglu said, a day after Britain’s Defense Minister said London would send around 75 military personnel to join the training.

“No decision has been made on this. But if such a proposal comes from Britain, we would assess this and in principal we would not say ‘No’ to this, we would be sympathetic,” Cavusoglu said.

Asked whether Turkey and the United States had agreed on the deployment of armed drones to Incirlik Airbase in Turkey, Cavusoglu said: “If there would be a need for more drones, our military would make the decision but we are not at that stage yet.”

The U.S. Air Force has remotely piloted aircraft stationed at the base near the Syrian border, which have been used for surveillance.

Turkey has been a reluctant partner in the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, refusing to take a frontline military role despite its 1,200 km (750-mile) border with Iraq and Syria unless there is a strategy which includes the removal of Assad.

Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington; editing by Ralph Boulton, G Crosse and Sandra Maler

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