US commanders spark questions over military presence in Turkey

Turkish tanks are seen in a military exercise on Syrian border. (Photo: AA)

October 28, 2012, Sunday/ 14:14:00

The Turkish military and the minister of defense have quickly denied any US military presence in Turkey after top US commanders said military personnel had been sent to Turkey to assist in handling the spillover of the Syrian crisis and the fight against the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

“There are no US military personnel or units deployed in Turkey in regards to developments in Syria,” a statement from the General Staff said on Saturday. It said US military personnel are based at an air base in İncirlik, Adana province, under a 1980 agreement with the US on defense and economic cooperation; in Kürecik, Malatya, to operate US radar deployed in Turkey as part of a NATO missile defense system under an agreement dated Sept. 14, 2011; and finally at the Office of Defense Cooperation (ODC) that operates under the US Embassy in Ankara.

Speaking later in the day, Defense Minister İsmet Yılmaz reiterated that the US has no troops or any military unit deployed in Turkey other than those stipulated in the General Staff statement.

The Turkish statements came after top US commanders said they sent teams to Turkey to work on humanitarian concerns emanating from the crisis in Syria, as well as the fight against the PKK.

“On the issue of have we deployed additional forces to Turkey in response to the crisis in Syria, there have been times when we've sent teams over to do some planning with them, notably on humanitarian zones, ballistic missile defense and also some of their counter-terror concerns related to an unstable northeastern Syria and the PKK,” Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said at a news conference with US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday at the Pentagon.

He said Adm. James Winnefeld, the vice chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, had just “returned back and had conversations with his counterpart about those things.” Winnefeld had talks at the General Staff and the Foreign Ministry during a visit to Ankara last week. No statement was made after the talks.

“We've been having an intelligence-sharing regime with Turkey for about the last five years. And one of the things we're looking to do now is learn lessons from the last five years, recognize a different situation on Turkey's southeastern border, and see if there's other things we could do to -- to assist them, as well as to reduce the threat of ballistic missile attack inside Turkey,” Dempsey said. “So it's a work in progress, and we go and come as we need to have those consultations.”

Dempsey's remarks came after US Army Europe Commander Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling said the US Army has had "relatively few" personnel recently in Turkey in a bid to assist Turkey in handling the spillover of the Syrian crisis to its neighboring country.

"We have had a relatively few number of US Army Europe personnel in Turkey recently. Some of that has been sharing intelligence," Hertling was quoted as saying by American news magazine US News & World Report.

The question of US military presence has been on the agenda since US Defense Secretary Panetta suggested that the US has been extending military assistance to Turkey to help deal with the fallout from the Syrian crisis.

Confirming deployment of US military personnel in another neighbor of Syria, Jordan, Panetta said at a news conference in Brussels earlier this month that the US has “reached out to Turkey as well.” He said the Turkish and US authorities are working together to deal with concerns about Syria's chemical and biological weapons sites and about a humanitarian crisis emanating from the Syrian refugee inflow.

Turkish diplomatic sources have earlier denied any US troop presence in Turkey, saying the Turkish-US cooperation regarding Syria is limited to closed-door meetings that involve military officials and diplomats of the two countries who meet as part of a mechanism announced during a visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Ankara in August.

Confusion over origin of Syrian shells landing in Turkey

In a separate development that has also raised eyebrows in Turkey, Hertling has said the origin of the shells that were fired from Syria and landed in Turkish territory, sharply escalating tensions along the Turkish-Syrian border, was in dispute.

Hertling, addressing a meeting at Johns Hopkins University on Thursday, said there was confusion on whether these shells were fired by the Syrian military, by the opposition forces seeking greater Turkish involvement in the Syrian crisis or the PKK. Hertling described the situation as an increasingly complicated one that no NATO member wants to be militarily involved in.

Turkey has hit targets in Syria after a mortar bomb fired from Syria killed five civilians in a Turkish border town on Oct. 3, prompting Turkey to call for urgent NATO talks. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said there was no doubt that the bomb was fired by the Syrian military, while exchange of fire along the border continued after that incident.

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