Los Angeles Times
Turkey joins a regional conflict
Airstrikes on Islamic State and the PKK usher it into clashes it has avoided.
BEIRUT — Turkey has long been a reluctant partner in the U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State militants. Since the U.S. first launched airstrikes in Iraq nearly a year ago, leaders in Ankara had refused to join in, and until this week, had barred coalition warplanes from even using Turkish air bases to mount attacks in neighboring Syria.
Then came Turkey’s announcement Friday that it had unleashed a string of high-profile aerial strikes against the extremist group, the vanguard of what President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said would be a series of operations that “will continue decisively in the future.”
Turkey also launched a renewed series of strikes on the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a frequent target in the past.
One thing was clear: Turkey, like it or not, has been drawn bit by bit into the war to determine the future of its neighbors in Iraq and Syria — though there are doubts, still, about how significant that role will be.
“Whether Ankara likes it or not, after a long period of hesitation and ambiguous posturing, Turkey has been dragged into the fight,” columnist Joost Lagendijk wrote in Today’s Zaman, an English-language Turkish newspaper.
Friday’s airstrikes appear to have been in retaliation for a militant attack on a Turkish border outpost a day earlier that left one soldier dead and two wounded. Turkish authorities also announced a roundup of almost 300 terrorism suspects, including accused Islamic State operatives.
Turkish police have blamed Islamic State for a suicide bombing Monday in the largely Kurdish southern border town of Suruc that left 32 dead and more than 100 wounded. Spontaneous demonstrations erupted across Turkey condemning both the attacks and what is seen as the government’s indulgence of Islamist militants operating along its long border with Syria.
The bombing seems to suggest that the battle between Islamic State and Kurdish militia members may be spreading north from Syria into Turkish territory, a potentially ominous development for the government in Ankara.
Until now, Turkey’s commitment to fight the Islamist extremists has been constrained by other security concerns, including the expansion of ethnic Kurdish authority in northern Syria and the punishing war that continues to rage in Syria with no end in sight.
The aerial strikes, announced with considerable fanfare by Turkish officials, came as Erdogan confirmed an agreement to allow expanded U.S. use of the strategic Incirlik air base. U.S. officials had long sought expanded access because of the base’s proximity to Islamic State positions in Syria and Iraq.
Turkish authorities have denied allegations that they have abetted Islamic State and other militant groups in Syria. But militant recruits, arms supplies and black market oil have regularly crossed the border.
Turkey, NATO’s eastern bulwark, has a huge army and air force and is probably in the best strategic position to deal a decisive blow to Islamic State and other militant factions operating in Syria. But worry about Kurdish territorial gains and being dragged directly into Syria’s civil war left Ankara largely on the sidelines. That has left officials in Washington, London and other capitals privately fuming.
Whether the crackdown on militants augurs a broader and more protracted campaign against Islamic State remains to be seen. Even Turkey’s decision to allow U.S. forces to use the Incirlik base came with a significant qualification. In his comments, Erdogan emphasized that Turkey insisted the air base be utilized “within a certain framework,” without elaboration.
The comments ignited speculation that Turkey is insisting that sorties from the base not be used in support of Syrian Kurdish militia members who have received massive U.S. air cover in their campaigns in Syria against Islamic State. Turkish officials regard the major Syrian Kurdish militia as a proxy for the PKK.
Many Turkish leaders clearly view the threat of ethnic Kurdish expansion in northern Syria as a more grave concern than Islamic State. Turkish officials have been outraged to see U.S. warplanes and drones acting as a de facto air force for Kurdish militia members allied with the PKK.
In addition to the attacks on Islamic State, Turkey also announced strikes on PKK targets in Iraq — positioning Washington, which has used airstrikes to aid pro-PKK Kurds fighting Islamic State in Syria, between two key allies, the Kurds and the Turks.