(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State John Kerry headed to Turkey Friday for talks on the campaign against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL), after Turkey refused to join the U.S. and 10 Arab states in endorsing orchestrated action against the terrorist group.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf played down the NATO ally’s refusal to sign a communique at the end of a 12-nation conference attended by Kerry in the Saudi city of Jeddah Thursday, saying the administration was not concerned.
“Each country will decide on their own what they would like to sign on to and what they would like to do,” she said. “I want to underscore they’re our very close counterterrorism partner,” she added in reference to the Turks.
Turkey’s Hurriyet daily cited diplomatic sources as saying that after Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu saw wording in the draft communique supporting military action against ISIS, he consulted with Ankara and was instructed not to sign. (Measures contained in the document included “as appropriate, joining in the many aspects of a coordinated military campaign.”)
At a joint press appearance with Kerry after the conference, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said in reply to a question that “there was no difference at all between Turkey and any member of this meeting.” He did not elaborate.
The State Department then announced that Kerry would make previously-unannounced stops in Ankara and Cairo before a scheduled visit to Paris for talks with Europeans and others on the ISIS crisis in the coming days.
Turkey’s foreign ministry said in a bland statement Kerry would meet with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Cavusoglu to “discuss bilateral, regional and global issues as well as opportunities to further develop our relations and cooperation.”
In an interview in Jeddah with the BBC, Kerry disputed that Turkey’s refusal to sign the communique was a serious flaw, saying that the country was “very engaged.”
“I have full expectation as we go forward that we’ll work through whatever issues or questions that exist,” he said. “But I think for the moment, they have a few sensitive issues. We respect those sensitive issues, and we’re going to work with them very carefully.”
Turkey’s wariness has been attributed to the fact that ISIS is holding almost 50 Turkish citizens, including diplomats, seized when the group captured Iraq’s second-biggest city, Mosul, in early June.
But Turkish officials have also raised other concerns about international action against ISIS, uneasy that the campaign could end up strengthening Kurdish separatists with designs on south-eastern Turkey, bolstering the Assad regime in Syria, and altering the regional balance of power in favor of Iran and its allies.
Earlier Thursday a pro-government Turkish newspaper, Yeni Safak, reported that Turkish leaders after talks with military chiefs had decided that the country could not support an anti-ISIS coalition publicly.
Turkish media also cited unnamed officials saying Turkey would not allow combat missions to be launched from Incirlik air base, a key U.S. Air Force and NATO facility located in the country’s south-east, less than 200 miles from ISIS’ northern Syrian stronghold, Raqqa.
If confirmed, that stance would echo Turkey’s refusal to allow the U.S. to mount attacks against Saddam Hussein’s regime from its air bases, after lawmakers voted in March 2003 against allowing the U.S. to use Turkish territory to invade Iraq. Incirlik was used later as a hub for U.S. air cargo and fuel heading for Iraq.
Both Kerry and President Obama have spoken in recent weeks about the importance of having countries like Turkey onboard in the fight against ISIS, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Ankara on Monday to discuss just that.
Turkey’s Islamist government, a keen supporter of the anti-Assad rebellion, has fended off allegations that lax security along its 570 mile-long border with Syria has allowed foreign fighters to flood across to join ISIS and other Islamist groups.
Kerry said Thursday that the subject would be on the agenda for his talks in Ankara.
“Turkey’s a big border with Syria. It’s very, very important,” he told VOA. “And many foreign fighters have moved through Turkey, so there’s a lot to discuss with Turkey about roles that can be played here.”
Kerry’s coalition-building exercise is being further complicated by differences among potential partners in the Middle East.
Along with its ally Qatar, Turkey has clashed with other regional countries, especially Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, due to the vocal Turkish and Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
That the Turkish and Egyptian foreign minister even sat around the same table in Jeddah was notable, given the undisguised hostility between the Islamist Erdogan and his anti-Islamist Egyptian counterpart, Abdul Fattah el-Sisi.
Although Turkey did not sign the communique Qatar did, despite serious tensions with some of its Gulf neighbors over its backing for the Muslim Brotherhood.
Saudi Arabia and Iraq also appear to have set aside their differences since former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki stepped down. (Maliki, a Shi’ite, accused the Saudis of supporting ISIS; the kingdom accused him of fueling ISIS’ rise by stoking anti-Sunni sentiment in Iraq.)