ANKARA Turkey and the United States aim to finalize an agreement on equipping and training moderate Syrian rebels this month, a senior foreign ministry official said on Monday, part of the U.S.-led campaign to battle Islamic State militants.
The training is expected to start in March, simultaneously with similar programs in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the Turkish official said. The aim is to train 15,000 Syrian rebels over three years.
"Around 1,500 to 2,000 people are expected to be trained in Turkey (in the first year)," the official said, adding that a "limited number" of U.S. soldiers would come to Turkey to help carry out the training jointly with Turkish colleagues.
The training is planned to take place at a base in the central Turkish city of Kirsehir.
Islamic State militants, who implement a hardline version of Sunni Islam, have seized large swathes of territory in Syria and around one third of Iraq. They seized Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, in June last year.
Turkey has been a reluctant partner in the U.S.-led coalition against the insurgents, refusing a frontline military role despite its 1,200 km (750-mile) border with Iraq and Syria.
But it agreed in principle to train and equip Syrian rebels and is already training Kurdish peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq. Ankara has signaled that it is ready to extend similar assistance to the Iraqi army and send arms.
Turkey has long argued that air strikes alone are not enough to bring stability. It wants a comprehensive strategy including the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad before it will give stronger support to the U.S.-led campaign.
Supported by air strikes, Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters broke an Islamic State siege of Sinjar Mountain in northwestern Iraq late in December, freeing hundreds of Yazidis trapped there for months.
(Reporting by Tulay Karadeniz; Writing by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Ralph Boulton)