Santiago, Chile: U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Saturday the U.S. is making “considerable progress” in its negotiations with Turkey over the plan to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels in their fight against Islamic State militants.
A senior U.S. official confirmed that Turkey has agreed to train the Syrian moderates inside Turkey. The official was not authorized to discuss the negotiations publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Hagel said he spoke at length Saturday with the U.S. envoy for the Syria and Iraq mission, retired Gen. John Allen. He said that Allen continues to work to get other international partners, including those in the Middle East, involved in the training program.
Hagel, who is in Santiago for meetings with leaders, also said the U.S. continues to use airstrikes to go after Islamic State militants in the Syrian border town of Kobani. But he said extremists are still threatening the town and are occupying part of the outskirts.
“It's a dangerous situation,” he said, adding that the U.S. is doing what it can from the air and, “in fact, there has been some progress made in that area.”
He gave a more upbeat assessment of the security situation in Baghdad. He said Iraqi security forces are “in full control” of the capital and that the U.S. continues to add military support to that region
On Friday, Hagel said the U.S. was hoping Turkey would agree to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels on its own soil. U.S. officials are still discussing details with Turkey. When asked for an update Saturday, Hagel said he is waiting for Turkey to make its own announcement.
The U.S. has been urging Turkey to get more involved in the battle against the Islamic State extremists who have taken over large swaths of Iraq and Syria and driven refugees into Turkey.
Ankara has hesitated and has persistently asked the U.S. to set up a safe zone along Turkey's border with Syria. Hagel and other U.S. officials have repeatedly said that such a zone is not actively being considered.
Hagel met Saturday with Chile Defense Minister Jorge Burgos and President Michelle Bachelet. His stop here is part of a six-day trip to South America, and included a visit to Colombia. He next goes to Peru for a conference of defense ministers from the Americas.
He made his comments Saturday afternoon during a news conference with Burgos.
A joint team from U.S. Central Command and U.S. European Command will travel to Turkey next week to meet with officials there to discuss the different ways Turkey can contribute to the effort to degrade the Islamic State militants.