Alarmed by the continued spread of the Islamic State, Turkey will bow to a long-standing American request and allow the United States to fly bombing missions against the militants from one of its key air bases, a move that effectively thrusts Ankara into a war it has long sought to avoid.
Under the deal, manned and unmanned U.S. aircraft will be permitted to use the Incirlik air base in southern Turkey to launch strikes against the Islamic State, a change that will open the door to an expansion of the U.S.-led air war in Syria and Iraq.
After months of negotiations, the deal was sealed in a phone call between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Barack Obama on Wednesday, U.S. officials said.
The decision coincided with reports that Turkish troops clashed with Islamic State fighters near the Syrian border in Kilis province in the first case of direct combat between the country’s forces and the extremists. One Turkish soldier was killed, and two were wounded.
A U.S. defense official said Thursday that Washington takes “threats to Turkey’s border very seriously” and will allow the anti-Islamic State coalition “operational flexibility to respond to these threats, especially those emanating from Syria.”
Turkey’s willingness to allow the United States to use Incirlik is a major shift for Ankara, which has been reluctant to be drawn into the war on the Islamic State, even as fighting raged in the border town of Kobani earlier this year.
Turkish leaders have sharply disagreed with the U.S. approach in Syria and argued for more support for the rebels fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as opposed to just those battling the Islamic State. Ankara has called for setting up a buffer zone in northern Syria to prevent the conflict from spilling over its border and to provide an area where humanitarian aid could be delivered to displaced Syrians.
Turkey, which has strongly opposed self-rule for Kurds on its territory, also has watched the advance of Syrian Kurdish forces against the Islamic State with concern, vowing never to accept the creation of a Kurdish state on its border.
Washington, however, has so far dismissed the buffer zone idea as it would fall to the U.S. military to secure the area and enforce a no-fly zone — an escalation that the Obama administration opposes. U.S. officials have argued that the priority should be targeting the Islamic State extremists rather than Assad. To the consternation of Ankara, Washington finds itself in a de facto alliance with Assad in the fight against the Islamic State.
Turkey’s reluctance to take part in the fight against the Islamic State has frustrated the United States and other NATO allies. Western governments also have urged Turkey to take more decisive action to stem the flow of foreign fighters across its border with Syria, a conduit dubbed the “jihadi highway.”
Access to the Incirlik base was a contentious issue in the run-up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq that soured relations between Washington and Ankara. The Turkish parliament, reflecting opposition to the U.S. intervention, refused to allow American forces to use the Incirlik air base for bombing raids or to move troops through Turkish territory to open a second front in northern Iraq.
The White House on Thursday did not officially announce the agreement on Incirlik, but Defense Department spokeswoman Laura Seal, using a different acronym for the Islamic State, said the two governments “have decided to further deepen our cooperation in the fight against ISIL, our common efforts to promote security and stability in Iraq, and our work to bring about a political settlement to the conflict in Syria.”
The shift on Incirlik caps a bloody week for Turkey, which lost a soldier after troops came under fire from several Islamic State militants armed with a rocket launcher and Kalashnikov assault rifles, Turkish media reported.
The Turkish armed forces fired back at the extremists, killing one and destroying a pickup truck.
The fighting came after a suicide bomber with suspected links to the Islamic State set off an explosive in the Turkish border town of Suruc on July 20,killing 32 people and wounding more than 100.