Turkey awaits US jets for broader ISIL operations

Turkey awaits US jets for broader ISIL operations

Murat Yetkin
Turkey awaits US jets for broader ISIL operations

DHA photo

Turkey awaits the U.S. air force units to arrive at the İncirlik air base for broader operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) in Syria, a ranking Turkish official who asked not to be named told Hürriyet Daily News on July 30.

According to information gathered from official sources following the directives by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, the Turkish Armed Forces are getting ready for full scale joint operations together with the U.S. forces against ISIL. A major contribution of the Turkish government would be opening up the strategic İncirlik base, south of Turkey near the Syrian border and Mediterranean Sea, plus some other bases including Diyarbakır and Batman near Syrian and Iraqi borders for the air operations of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIL. But Turkish Air Forces will be actively taking part in strikes against ISIL, not only with F-16 fighters but refueling planes (also based at İncirlik), helicopters and transportation planes that are expected to be part of the operations.

The main frame of the northern front of anti-ISIL operations is expected to be formed by the U.S. and Turkish forces. The U.S. is expected to rebase its F-15 and F-16 fighters and Reaper UAV’s from their bases in Suffolk, Britain and Spangdahlem, Germany, together with their support personnel. “Once they are ready, we are ready,” the HDN source said. Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Tanju Bilgiç said on July 29 that “İncirlik can be used at any moment when considered necessary.”

According to the agreement reached between the Turkish and American officials, sealed through a telephone conversation between the Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan and U.S. President Barack Obama on July 22, the joint operation is not only limited to hitting ISIL targets on the ground. It involves forming an “ISIL-free” (or Daesh-free, the officially preferred acronym) zone by the Turkish border. Touching the Turkish border at the provinces of Kilis and Gaziantep, it is nearly 100 km in width, from Azaz in the west and Cerablus in the east and with an approximate depth of 40 km. Turkish jets (and artillery when necessary) will hit targets mostly in this region for “cleaning” it of ISIL forces. This is planned to be executed with the help of a 5,000 strong army mainly consisting of Turkmens living in Syria. One source said that this force, which has been assisted by Turks, would be in coordination with the U.S.-led coalition. (Turkish government had announced earlier that the ammunition carried by the trucks belonging to the National Intelligence Organization and seized by gendarmerie on their way to Syria in January 2014 were not going to ISIL nor al-Nusra related groups but Turkmens defending themselves.) The ISIL-free zone would be used for two purposes: 

1- To regulate the traffic of Syrian refugees in and out of Turkey, minimizing the risk of foreign terrorist fighters infiltrating in and out with them,

2-To create a bridge for further operations by the Syrian opposition supported by the anti-ISIL coalition to “clean” greater areas of ISIL.

The Kurdish forces fighting ISIL claim that another purpose was to put a wedge between Kurdish controlled regions, in order to prevent the formation of a Kurdish controlled strip from the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq borders to the Mediterranean Sea. That claim was turned down by Turkish officials.

Though not officially revealed, it is possibly as a part of a deal in which the Turkish government has started to make a distinction between the Syrian Kurdish forces led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Turkey-originated Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), although they are sister organizations. PM Davutoğlu has said unless the PYD attacks Turkish targets like ISIL or the PKK have done, they would not be considered an enemy force, despite the past week’s ongoing massive military and police operations against the PKK and especially its military positions in the north of Iraq, near the Turkish border.

That has created concern in the West about a possible weakening of ground forces against ISIL; surprisingly Iran has agreed on this recently. But Turkish government sees the operations against the PKK as part of domestic security and as retaliation to recent PKK killings of soldiers and police officers, risking the three-year-old dialogue about a political solution to the country’s chronic Kurdish problem.

Avoiding criticism that the government was justifying the anti-PKK operations by joining to the U.S. -led anti-ISIL coalition on a broader scale, the official anonymous source told HDN that hitting the PKK now has “a tactical priority” for Turkey, since it is a burning issue and that border operations would be launched against ISIL as soon as the American forces are ready to strike from İncirlik.