ANKARA, Turkey — The United States on Friday pressed Turkey to harden its borders against fighters and funding flowing to the Islamic State militant group, and sought clarity on how far Ankara is willing to go to help a worldwide coalition destroy the insurgent threat.
Turkey sits on the front line of the extremist group’s battleground in Iraq and safe haven in Syria and already has assisted refugees and cracked down on suspicious cross-border traffic from both countries. But Turkey has resisted publicly endorsing a new global strategy to defeat the Islamic State, which has kidnapped 49 Turkish citizens, including some diplomats.
At the start of a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu cited “challenges and threats” in Iraq and Syria.
He did not mention the Islamic State by name and did not respond to a shouted question about why Turkey refused, a day earlier in Saudi Arabia, to join the U.S. with a coalition of Mideast nations that pledged to curb the extremists’ resources, repudiate their ideology, provide humanitarian aid to its victims and potentially contribute to a military campaign.
It was the third meeting so far this month between Kerry and Cavusoglu, who also together participated in talks during the annual NATO summit in Wales and this week in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, about the Islamic State threat. Kerry said the two men also will chair a counterterrorism forum at the United Nations General Assembly at the end of September.
But the U.S. is being careful to not push Turkey too hard as it grapples with trying to free its hostages. The Turks were kidnapped from their consulate in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul when it was overrun by the Islamic State in June.
The extremists also are holding several Americans hostage, and as payback for more than 150 airstrikes that Washington has launched against them in Iraq since last month, has beheaded two U.S. freelance journalists who were working in Syria.
In an interview taped Thursday with the BBC, Kerry said Turkey is “very engaged and … very involved,” and expressed confidence that concerns and questions ultimately will be resolved.
“But I think for the moment, they have a few sensitive issues,” Kerry said. “We respect those sensitive issues, and we’re going to work with them very carefully.”
Senior U.S. officials who briefed reporters traveling with Kerry said Ankara already has been working against the Islamic State, including by recently denying about 6,000 people from entering Turkey and deporting 1,000 more who all were deemed suspicious. But one of the U.S. officials said Turkey’s borders remain extremely porous and would be a focus of the diplomatic talks Friday.
Still, the U.S. officials said they were encouraged by Turkey’s participation in the talks in Wales and Jiddah over how to combat the Islamic State and described it as an uptick in Ankara’s involvement in the issue.
They also said Turkey has taken in an estimated 1 million Syrian refugees who have fled their homes since civil war broke out three years ago between Syrian President Bashar Assad and Sunni rebels trying to overthrow him. Although the Islamic State is rooted in Iraq, it seized on the chaos in neighboring Syria to gain military strength and create a safe haven.
It’s not clear whether Turkey will be willing to contribute to the potential military campaign that the new coalition is planning, which is likely to include training and equipping Syrian rebels and Iraqi forces, providing intelligence, and expanding airstrikes against extremists in Iraq and potentially into Syria.
Because of its location, Turkey could be an ideal staging place for allied fighter jets and drones that would launch the airstrikes. But the U.S. officials said there currently are no plans to do so.
The U.S. officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to be named in briefing reporters.
Meanwhile, the State Department announced it would give nearly $500 million in additional funding — for a total of $2.9 billion since March 2011 — to a U.N. fund to help Syria refugees. It marks the largest U.S. contribution to the largest U.N. appeal ever. Nearly half of the new money is designated for refugees still inside Syria; about 10 percent, or $47 million, will go to refugees inside Turkey.