WASHINGTON -- Turkey needs to "do more" to assist the U.S.-led international coalition fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Thursday, urging America's sometimes reluctant NATO partner to take steps to participate in airstrikes and better control its border.
Carter said the U.S. appreciates Turkey's recent decision to permit U.S. warplanes to fly combat missions out of Turkish air bases. But he said top U.S. leaders are in "active discussions" with Turkey about the need to better stem the flow of Islamic militants crossing its border into Iraq and Syria
"This needs to be done. It's overdue, because it's a year into the campaign. But they're indicating some considerable effort now, including some - allowing us to use their airfields," he told a Pentagon news conference. "That's important, but it's not enough."
He said militant fighters and supplies are making their way across the long border, and as a fellow NATO member and a neighbor to the conflict in Syria and Iraq, Turkey must police it "more than it has been controlled over the last year."
Earlier this month the U.S. began flying armed drones out of Incirlik Air Base and less than two weeks later F-16 fighter jets flew their first manned strike missions from the base. The stepped-up campaign adds an element of greater risk to pilots who might encounter Syrian or other air defenses.
Pentagon officials had long been in talks with Turkey over the use of Incirlik, which provides much greater proximity to ISIS targets in northern Syria.
Most U.S. aerial combat missions over Iraq and Syria are being flown from more distant air bases in Qatar and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf region, although the U.S. also is flying F-16s from Muwaffaq Salti air base in Jordan. Officials have said that the F-16s could also be used to fly missions into Iraq.
There have been lingering concerns, however, that Turkey would continue to focus its military forces on Kurdish rebels, and not spend enough effort battling ISIS.
The U.S. has said Turkey has a right to defend itself against the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which Washington, like Turkey, considers a terrorist group. The PKK is affiliated with, but separate from, Syrian Kurdish fighters allied with the United States in its fight against the Islamic State group. Turkish officials say the Syrian Kurdish group is not a target of Turkey's operations.
For the last month or so, U.S. officials have said that Turkey is working to integrate its military into the ongoing coalition air campaign, which includes formally building Turkish strike aircraft into the daily flight operations.
Carter told reporters that he doesn't think Turkey is dragging its feet. "We're working through the practicalities," he said.