David Cameron faced an awkward diplomatic encounter with Turkey’s prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu last night as he promised to share high-level intelligence on Islamic State fighters but his counterpart hit out at foreign “propaganda” about them passing through Turkish territory.
On his first trip to Turkey for four years, Cameron said the UK was working “hand in glove” with the country to address the scourge of Isis fighters. During a press conference, the prime minister said some UK citizens are crossing the Turkish border or trying to return home via the same route, and claimed the two countries were working “as closely as we possibly can” to tackle the threat.
Cameron said: “On the question of what more Turkey and indeed Britain can do to stop this scourge of foreign fighters and defeat this ideology of violence, I believe we are, all of us, taking the steps that we should.
“We’ve passed legislation through our parliament, we are taking people’s passports, we are confronting and prosecuting people who have travelled to Turkey.
“We’re working as closely as we possibly can and the prime minister and I have agreed that we should exchange even more information, we should cooperate more in terms of intelligence, we should work hand in glove because the people who are travelling, whether from Britain or elsewhere, sometimes through Turkey, sometimes in other ways to Syria and Iraq, these are people that threaten us back at home so we should do everything that we can and we’ve had very productive discussions today”.
But, as they shared a stage, Davutoğlu accused foreign media of spreading “propaganda” about foreign Isis fighters are travelling across Turkish soil.
“Foreign fighters are a threat to the countries that they are coming from or for the neighbouring countries. Turkey has never tolerated their transit through our territory or their existence in Syria. These fighters are creating a threat for us in Turkey, they are casting a shadow over the just cause of the Syrian people.
“This is a threat for the security of Turkey in addition to other countries. In some of the foreign press there is propaganda as if the foreign fighters are passing through Turkey... but Isis actually emerged in Iraq and when Iraq was under US control they developed with the support of the Syrian regime. In no way did any Isis leader pass through the Turkish border, ” said Davutoğlu.
The US and EU have been pressing Turkey to do more to stop the flow of fighters along its 800-mile shared border with Syria and Iraq.
Despite the Turkish prime minister’s comments, UK official sources insisted the country had signalled it was willing to work with Britain on temporary exclusion orders – Cameron’s plan to stop foreign Isis fighters returning home temporarily.
Cameron also reiterated his support for Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union for the first time in years, despite being under pressure over immigration and a challenge from Ukip to withdraw the UK’s backing for its membership.
He gave the press conference with Davutoğlu before heading for dinner with the country’s controversial president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who wants greater action by the west to tackle Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The dinner with Erdoğan took place in the president’s palace that has more than 1,000 rooms.
Cameron’s demands for co-operation on counter-terrorism included more intelligence sharing on who is boarding flights and who is being detained.
There have long been tensions between Ankara and its western allies about how to deal with the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
Turkey has been in discussions with US officials about the possibility of a no-fly zone over northern Syria in return for US use of its Incirlik airbase to launch strikes against Isis.
But Erdoğan has previously been critical of western allies for switching focus from challenging Assad to concentrating on the threat of Isis, arguing that the region’s problems can only be sorted out if the Syrian president is removed from office. However, there are reports from the US that the two sides are closer to a deal than when Joe Biden, the US vice-president, visited Turkey in November.