ISTANBUL — The United States is sending armed missions into Syria from Turkey for the first time, despite an unresolved dispute between Washington and Ankara about the rules for U.S. warplanes attacking targets in Syria from Turkish airbases.
The Pentagon announced Monday it sent its first armed drones from Turkey into Syria over the weekend. Combat aircraft are expected to lift off from Turkey’s Incirlik air base, just 60 miles west of the Syrian border, in the near future, spokesman Jeff Davis said.
The drone flights are the first concrete result of a recent agreement between Turkey and the U.S. that allows Washington to deploy fighter jets from the NATO airbase at Incirlik to attack Islamic State positions, adding punch to the U.S.-led offensive against the jihadists.
Turkish officials say other Turkish bases near the Syrian border are also available for allied fighters. That makes things much easier for the Pentagon, as many of the U.S. jets so far have been flying to Syria from aircraft carriers in the Gulf, more than 1,200 miles to the south.
But there are problems. Ankara is not happy with the continuing U.S. support for Syrian Kurds, who have proved to be the most successful anti-ISIS force on the ground. Turkey is concerned that the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its militia, called People’s Protection Units (YPG), are trying to seize the momentum of their military gains to set up an independent Kurdish state along the Turkish border in northern Syria.
These groups are closely allied to the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, that has fought a decades-long guerrilla war against Ankara and is deemed a terrorist organization Europe and the United States.
Ankara says the Syrian Kurds are fighting ISIS only because the jihadists stand in the way of their planned autonomous region. “They are trying to create a corridor in the north towards the Mediterranean Sea,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Turkish reporters accompanying him on a trip to Asia on July 30.
So far, there was not much Turkey could do to influence the U.S. as it bombed ISIS positions that threaten Kurdish fighters, but with Washington preparing to send warplanes to Turkish airbases for strikes in Syria, that could change.
Washington and Ankara differ about whether the Americans are allowed to continue to support the Kurds once they start their bombing raids from Turkish soil. State Department spokesman John Kirby said on July 27 the YPG had “already benefited from coalition air support” in their fight against ISIS. “The fact that we now have access to bases in Turkey will allow for that support to be more timely and perhaps even more effective. So, I would expect that that kind of air support will continue.”
Turkish officials said that is not what Ankara thinks. “Our consensus does not include helping the YPG,” an official said, while he conceded that assistance for the YPG could become a “natural outcome” of bombing raids against ISIS from Turkish bases. The Syrian Kurds could become “a rational factor in the fight against ISIS” once they gave up their aim of creating an exclusively Kurdish area in Syria.
Ankara and Washington also differ about Turkish plans to create a safe zone within Syria to help refugees and keep Syrians Kurds from forming a unified Kurdish region there.
Turkey has been demanding for years that the international community set up safe zones on Syria territory to make it possible to care for refugees of the civil war inside their own country. But the United Nations and the West ignored Ankara’s call, the zone never materialized, and Turkey was swamped with close to 2 million Syrian refugees.
Now the safe-zone issue has made a comeback. On July 26, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu met with Turkish newspaper editors to brief them on the ongoing airstrikes against ISIS in Syria and PKK rebels holed up in northern Iraq. Asked about the sudden shift by Turkey, which had previously refused to attack ISIS and open its airbases for the U.S. and others, Davutoglu said Ankara had received the green light by the Americans to set up the zone.
The Prime Minister said the agreement with the U.S. on opening Turkish bases for allied jets fulfilled some of Turkey’s “concerns and expectations.” Davutoglu added that Turkey and the U.S. agreed that troops of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a Western-backed rebel alliance in Syria, would enjoy air cover by Turkey and the U.S., while ISIS would be pushed back from the Turkish border.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that “areas cleared of ISIS will be safe areas.” Press reports identified the planned zone as a 50-mile strip from the Syrian border town of Jarablus in the east to Azaz in the west and reaching about 20 miles deep into Syrian territory.
Davutoglu stressed that no Turkish ground troops would be sent into Syria to control the strip. Turkish officials say the FSA is to take over that task, but it is unclear which groups exactly would be allowed to do that. Talks with the U.S. about the issue would probably take place in the coming days, one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Back in Washington, however, the Obama administration was ruling out a safe zone.
Turkish officials admit that there is no plan yet for how the return of refugees into a safe zone would work. A return would “only be voluntary,” one official said. In fact, the project is so vague that the official said it should not even be called a proper “safe zone.”
“The aim of the consensus with the U.S. is to remove ISIS from that area in Syria,” the official said. “That area is going to become a de-facto safe zone.” Asked whether one of the purposes of the zone was to prevent Kurdish Syrian fighters from gaining more ground in northern Syrian, the official declined to answer.