US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter arrives for a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the ASEAN.
© AFP

The US publicly called on Turkey to do more to close its border with Syria, which has been a major conduit for Isis to bring fighters and arms into the country.

As the US announced it would send more special operations forces into Iraq and Syria to take on Isis, President Barack Obama said on Tuesday he had had “repeated conversations” with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, urging him to block off the border to Isis.

The signs of friction between the US and Turkey come as the US-led coalition is trying to launch a military operation to expel Isis from the last 98km strip of the Syria-Turkish border that it still controls.

The US and Turkey have been discussing the operation for months and US-trained forces have begun fighting Isis in part of the area, however the military plans have been partly hampered by continued disagreements between Washington and Ankara.

Speaking at a press conference in Paris on Tuesday, Mr Obama said of the plan to retake the border strip still controlled by Isis: “We have been having our militaries’ work together to determine how a combination of air and Turkish ground forces on the Turkish side of the border can do a much better job of sealing the border than currently is.” He added: “I think President Erdogan recognises that.”

Ashton Carter, US defence secretary, said on Tuesday that “Turkey must do more to control its often porous border”. The US would like Turkey to deploy more troops to its side of the border with Syria. A senior US official said that the discussions with Turkey about the border zone had been a “hard slog”.

The Turks have been pushing for a broader plan that would turn the area into a safe zone for refugees and rebel soldiers once Isis has been expelled. Mr Carter said that the US was against the idea of a safe zone because of the difficulty of retaining control. He added that the Turks “have not offered a force of the size that would do that [secure the zone]”.

The comments about Turkey’s role in the anti-Isis campaign came as Mr Carter said that a “specialised expeditionary targeting force” would be deployed to help Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting Isis and which could also be used in Syria as well.

The announcement is the latest in a series of steps to gradually escalate the US military campaign against Isis, which have included increased air strikes against the group’s oil infrastructure.

Particularly since the Paris terrorist attack, the Obama administration has faced increasing pressure from Congress and some former officials to do much more to try and defeat Isis, with some Republican politicians calling for a US ground force to be deployed to both Iraq and Syria.

Instead, the Obama administration is doubling down on its existing strategy of using air power, very limited deployments of US special forces and aid to local partners on the ground.

In Syria, US officials believe that if they and the forces they are backing are able to establish greater momentum on the battlefield against Isis, it will give the administration greater leverage in the newly revived diplomatic process, which is trying to find a political solution to the country’s civil war.

Mr Carter did not give any figures for the new special forces contingent, however officials said it could be as large as 200. This is in addition to the up to 50 troops the US announced in October would go to Syria to assist groups of Sunni and Kurdish forces the US is working with.

Speaking at a Congressional hearing, Mr Carter said the new “expeditionary” force would conduct raids against Isis locations, attempt to capture leaders of the group, free hostages and gather intelligence.

As well as working with the Iraqi and Kurdish forces, it would be able to conduct “unilateral operations” in Syria. “That creates a virtuous cycle of better intelligence, which generates more targets, more raids, more momentum,” he said. “It puts everyone on notice in Syria. They don’t know who is going to be coming in through the window at night.”

He also urged Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to do more to help the fight against Isis, saying that in recent months they had been more focused on Yemen.

The United Arab Emirates said on Sunday that it would send ground troops to Syria. Anwar Gargash, UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, said the UAE was pushing for a political deal, but would also back international efforts to set up a regionally led coalition to intervene on the ground to fight terrorism.

Map: Isis weapons

He said foreign interference such as a US-led ground intervention was no longer “feasible”, but the Saudi-led coalition — which includes the UAE — that is fighting Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen was “an alternative model for us as nations”.

General Joseph Dunford, the new chair of the US joint chiefs of staff, said increased air strikes in recent weeks against Isis energy infrastructure had affected 43 per cent of the “revenue stream” that Isis has generated from selling oil. Air strikes had also hit cement and other industries that were generating money for the group.

Speaking at a press conference in Paris, Mr Obama defended the US strategy against Isis, saying that the military’s ability to use air power against Isis had been constrained by the lack of intelligence on the ground in Syria, which was now improving.

He also warned Russia that it risked an Afghanistan-style quagmire in Syria if it thought that the Assad regime could eventually win the conflict with Russian support.

In the month or so since Russian air strikes began in Syria, he said the situation on the ground had not changed much, while Russia had seen a commercial plane and a jet fighter shot down.

Referring to a brief meeting on Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the climate change conference in Paris, he said: “I think Mr Putin understands that, with Afghanistan fresh in the memory, for him to simply get bogged down in an inconclusive and paralysing civil conflict is not the outcome that he’s looking for.”

Additional reporting by Simeon Kerr in Dubai

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