By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
ANKARA, Turkey, Dec. 15, 2011 – Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta arrived here today to reinforce the United States’ strong relationship with a critical security partner within the region and NATO.
Panetta traveled here after ceremonies in Iraq marking the end of the U.S. Forces Iraq mission, with stops also in Afghanistan and Djibouti.
In Ankara, the secretary will meet with President Abdullah Gul and Turkish defense leaders to thank them for their country’s leadership during a period of transition and change within the region.
“Turkey represents a key ally in the Middle East,” Panetta told reporters traveling with him.
In addition to being a strong NATO ally, Turkey is “extremely important to the ability to try to keep what is happening in the Middle East headed in the right direction,” he said.
“They can have an influence on what happens in Egypt, what happens in Iraq, what happens in Iran, what happens in Syria,” the secretary said.
Panetta noted that Turkey has taken a strong position in condemning Syria’s violent crackdown on protestors and calling for President Bashar Assad to step down.
“Turkey is coming on very strong in recent weeks in full alignment with our efforts and those of our key Arab and European partners,” a senior defense official traveling with Panetta told reporters.
The secretary also said he will commend Turkey’s decision to host the forward-based radar for the NATO missile defense system.
Panetta also is expected to thank the Turks for their contributions to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
Also during the visit, the secretary is expected to express the United States’ solidarity in its fight against the PKK terrorists and ways to continue that support as U.S. forces complete their drawdown in Iraq, the official said.
Echoing a theme he raised earlier this month, the secretary is likely to encourage Turkey to strengthen and, where necessary, build relations with key neighbors, including Israel, Armenia and Cyprus, the official said.
(Source: US Department of Defense)