Turkish Warplanes Pound Islamic State In Syria As Ankara Steps Up To Front-Line
Turkish warplanes pounded Islamic State targets in Syria and police detained hundreds of suspected militants across Turkey on Friday, a sign that Ankara may have shed its hesitancy in taking a front-line role against jihadist fighters.
Turkey has long been a reluctant partner in the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, emphasizing the need to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and saying Syrian Kurdish forces also pose a grave security threat.
But the attacks on Islamic State targets inside Syria and the early morning raids across 13 provinces at home, which also targeted Kurdish militants, are among its most robust operations yet. One official said Ankara had moved to “active defense” from a passive strategy.
Turkey acted hours after officials in Washington said Ankara had agreed to let U.S. jets launch air strikes from a base near the Syrian border, dropping its earlier refusal to allow manned American bombing raids from there. This followed a phone conversation between President Barack Obama and his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan.
“We can’t say this is the beginning of a military campaign, but certainly the policy will be more involved, active and more engaged,” a Turkish government official told Reuters. “But action won’t likely be taken unprompted.”
Turkey has faced increasing insecurity along its 900-km (560-mile) border with Syria. A cross-border firefight on Thursday between the Turkish army and Islamic State, which has seized large areas of Syria and Iraq, left one militant and one soldier dead.
Three F-16 fighter jets took off from a base in Diyarbakir, southeast Turkey, early on Friday and hit two Islamic State bases and one “assembly point” before returning, the Prime Minister’s office said in a statement.
One official said the raid has been launched from Turkish airspace. “Turkish fighter jets didn’t cross the Syrian border during the operation,” the official said, adding the targets had been across the border from the Turkish town of Kilis.
Local people on the Turkish side of the frontier reported the sound of the attack. “We heard something last night, but we couldn’t tell if it was air strikes or gunfire,” said Zeki Polat, a 47-year-old who was sitting in a teahouse in the village of Elbeyli.
The attacks are probably the first time that Turkey has publicly said it bombed Islamic State in Syria, according to Rami Abdulrahman, the head of the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group. He said the aim of the strikes could also be “to help rebels on the ground control areas near the border instead of Kurdish forces”.
Turkey has suffered a wave of violence in its largely Kurdish southeast after a suspected Islamic State suicide bombing killed 32 people, many of them Kurds, in the town of Suruc on the Syrian border this week.
Police rounded up more than 250 people in raids against suspected Islamic State and Kurdish militants in Friday’s raids, the prime minister’s office said, adding it was determined to fight all “terrorist groups” equally.
Local media reported that helicopters and more than 5,000 officers, including special forces, were deployed in the operation. Anti-terror police raided more than 100 locations across Istanbul alone, broadcasters CNN Turk and NTV reported.
A press officer for the Istanbul police declined to comment.
But one senior official told Reuters: “This morning’s air strike and operation against terrorist groups domestically are steps taken as preventive measures against a possible attack against Turkey from within or from outside … There has been a move to active defense from passive defense.”
Turkey has repeatedly said it would take any “necessary measures” to protect itself from attack by both Islamic State and Kurdish militants
U.S. defense officials said on Thursday that Turkey has agreed to allow manned U.S. planes to launch air strikes against Islamic State militants from an air base at Incirlik, close to the Syrian border. U.S. drones are already launched from the base.
Turkish officials declined to comment on the report.
Obama and Erdogan agreed in their call on Wednesday to work together to stem the flow of foreign fighters and secure Turkey’s border.
The ability to fly manned bombing raids out of Incirlik against targets in nearby Syria could be a big advantage. Such flights have had to fly mainly from the Gulf.
Turkey’s stance has frustrated some of its NATO allies, including the United States, whose priority is fighting Islamic State rather than Assad. The allies have urged Turkey to do more to prevent its border being used as a conduit to Syria by foreign jihadists.