WASHINGTON—Turkey has agreed to let the U.S. military launch airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from a key air base near the Syrian border, senior U.S. officials said Thursday, July 23, giving a boost to the U.S.-led coalition while drawing Turkey deeper into the conflict.
President Barack Obama and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan finalized the deal in a phone call Wednesday, officials said, following months of U.S. appeals and delicate negotiations over the use of Incirlik and other bases in Turkey. Frustrated by Obama’s focus on fighting ISIS instead of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Turkey’s government had resisted the move, but in recent days a surge in ISIS’s activity in Turkey has brought concerns about the terrorist group to the forefront.
American officials said access to the base in southern Turkey, not far from ISIS strongholds across the border in Syria, would allow the United States to move more swiftly and nimbly against ISIS targets.
If the agreement holds, the U.S.-led coalition will be positioned to conduct better surveillance over Syria and act quicker on intelligence than when it was limited to launching flights from placed like Iraq, Jordan, and the Gulf states.
Under the deal, the U.S. military will be allowed to launch manned and unmanned flights from Incirlik; in the past, only unmanned drone flights were allowed.
Turkey has yet to publicly confirm the agreement, which U.S. officials discussed on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to comment publicly. Citing operational security, the White House declined to confirm the agreement, but noted that Obama and Erdogan had agreed to “deepen our cooperation” against ISIS in their phone call Wednesday.
“Turkey is a critical partner in degrading and defeating ISIL, and we appreciate the essential support Turkey provides to the international coalition across the many lines of effort,” said Alistair Baskey, a spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council, using an alternative acronym for the terrorist group.
Incirlik Air Base, located across the border from the Syrian city of Aleppo, is a joint U.S.–Turkish installation that houses the U.S. Air Force’s 39th Air Base Wing. Its proximity to ISIS-controlled territory in Syria—including Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital—makes it an attractive launching pad for U.S. airstrikes against the terrorist group. Turkey shares a 1,250-kilometer (775-mile) border with Syria and with Iraq, where ISIS also controls broad swaths of territory.
Turkey, a NATO ally and onetime close U.S. partner, has resisted getting embroiled too deeply in the U.S.-led fight against ISIS. The move to allow Turkish soil to be used to launch U.S. airstrikes appeared to mark a significant shift in approach.
Although Turkey is part of the U.S.-led coalition, it has limited its role out of concern that Washington’s overall strategy for Syria is flawed. To Turkey’s dismay, Obama has prioritized fighting ISIS over opposing Assad in Syria’s civil war. For months, as the United States requested consent to strike from Incirlik, Turkey held off, while continuing to press Obama to broaden his mission.
It was unclear whether Turkey had extracted a commitment from the United States to take on Assad more aggressively in exchange for using Incirlik. But in an apparent nod to Turkey’s priorities, the White House said Obama and Erdogan had also decided to deepen cooperation on “our work to bring about a political settlement to the conflict in Syria.”
Turkey’s shift on Incirlik came as the country is on higher alert following a series of deadly attacks and unsettling signs of increased ISIS activity in Turkey. On Thursday, ISIS extremists fired from Syrian territory at a Turkish military outpost. Turkish retaliated, killing at least one ISIS extremist. And earlier in the week, a suicide bombing that Turkey blamed on ISIS killed 32 people in southeastern Turkey, near the Syrian border.
The agreement to deepen cooperation between the United States and Turkey was a promising sign for two countries whose relations have grown strained in recent years. The United States and Western countries have long been pressing Erdogan’s government to do more to stop foreign fighters from crossing through Turkey into Syria and Iraq to join ISIS, with some analysts suggesting Turkey was looking the other way because ISIS is also fighting Assad.
“Turkey has also taken many important steps to curb the flow of foreign fighters,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said in a statement Thursday, adding that the foreign fighter problem is not Turkey’s alone.
Turkish officials have also raised concerns that cracking down on ISIS operations could prompt retaliation against Turkey, a fear that gained fresh currency following Monday’s deadly bombing. In the last six months, Turkish officials say, more than 500 people suspected of working with ISIS have been detained.