Turkey's key air base poised to host anti-ISIL coalition aircraft
Tolga Tanış - WASHINGTON
A key military air base in southern Turkey is expected to be opened to aircraft of the coalition fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) after the Turkish and U.S. presidents conducted a phone call to finalize the deal.
The two sides agreed in principle about the use of the İncirlik base in Adana during talks on July 7-8.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan agreed in a telephone call on July 22 to work together to “stem the flow of foreign fighters and secure Turkey’s border with Syria,” according a White House statement.
Before the conversation, a U.S. State Department official told daily Hürriyet that the İncirlik base was expected to open in early August to be used in the anti-ISIL fight.
He said they would not comment about drone operations, but added he could confirm the İncirlik base would be used by military aircraft of other coalition countries.
Hours before the White House statement, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç said in press conference in Ankara on July 22 that Turkey “had agreed on certain topics to support the [anti-ISIL] coalition’s efforts during a recent meeting with the U.S. special representative.”
“There is a consensus, conciliation has been reached upon these conversations but I cannot fully express its nature. A unanimity of thought and action has been reached about the issue of joint operations in the future. A related cabinet motion is now open for a signature,” he said.
'Only covers the İncirlik base'
The U.S. official speaking to Hürriyet stressed that the agreement “only covers the İncirlik base” issue, albeit hinting at a softening in Ankara’s earlier conditions to open the base.
When asked whether a buffer zone or no-fly zone inside Syria was still on the table, Arınç only said Ankara still wished to see them realized. “Turkey is doing its part in the coalition to support it. However, in order to achieve a result, it also wants the realization of a no-fly zone, security zone and other elements,” he said.
ISIL’s march toward northwest Syria since mid-June, threatening the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) control in the populous region, has seriously disturbed Turkey because of the fresh potential of a massive refugee influx.
The Turkish military reinforced its presence in the region and prepared plans for establishing a security zone inside Syria – both to host fleeing Syrian refugees on their own soil and to deter ISIL’s further advance. In coordination with Turkey, U.S. jetfighters launched aerial strikes against ISIL in a bid to stop the jihadists’ advance in the region.
Secure zones inside Syria
One of the most important requests that Washington had long been pressing for is the use of the İncirlik base, as well as of Turkish airspace, as part of the coalition’s aerial campaign against ISIL.
In return, Ankara has demanded U.S. assistance in establishing secure zones inside Syria and their protection by air.
“An agreement [on the use of İncirlik] could be possible if we can agree on other terms as well,” an official told the Hürriyet Daily News’ Ankara representative Serkan Demirtaş at the time.
Military officials from Turkey and the U.S. agreed to deploy armed drones at the İncirlik air base in March, but waited for almost three months for the political consent from the Turkish government.
Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel described the İncirlik base as a critical one for NATO while answering a recent question of daily Hürriyet.
İncirlik stands roughly 400 kilometers away from Raqqa, ISIL’s de facto capital in Syria. The anti-ISIL coalition has been relying on bases in the Gulf and flying nearly 2,000 kilometers a day to reach their targets against the jihadist group.