Discarding two years of seeming ambivalence toward the Islamic State, Turkey on Friday threw itself into the fight against the extremist organization, sending warplanes to attack jihadist positions in Syria, rounding up the group’s supporters in Turkey, and stating unequivocally that it was a member of the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition.
Turkish aircraft dropped four precision-guided bombs on three Islamic State targets in the early hours Friday and were reported launching fresh attacks late Friday night.
The decision by the Turkish government to move aggressively against the Islamic State could prove to be a major turning point in a campaign that has shown at best mixed results after nearly a year.
A concerted Turkish effort to combat the group could cut off its primary conduit for recruits – as many as 25,000 foreigners are thought to have crossed from Turkey into Islamic State territory – and limit its ability to smuggle supplies in and oil and other contraband out.
“The Daash problem is a primary national security threat for Turkey,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement, using a common term for the Islamic State. “The dimensions of this threat are constantly growing.”
The Foreign Ministry acknowledged that two events this week had driven its move: the suicide bombing Monday in the town of Suruc that killed 32 and the Islamic State attack Thursday on a Turkish military patrol that left one Turkish soldier dead.
“It is clear that these threats and attacks directed against our national security will receive the response they deserve,” the statement said.
Turkish officials also suggested that the developments had caused the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to soften its open hostility toward the Syrian Kurdish militia battling the Islamic State inside Syria. Previously, Erdogan had suggested the growth of the YPG militia in areas formerly controlled by the Islamic State was Turkey’s No. 1 concern and had blasted the United States for coordinating with the Kurdish group.
But Friday’s official statements made no reference to the Kurdish militia, and officials said the two sides are talking in secret on ways to counteract the jihadists, an assertion Kurdish spokesman Idris Nassan confirmed.
Turkish officials also confirmed that they were dropping their objection to the U.S. use of the vast Incirlik Air Base to conduct airstrikes against the Islamic State and suggested that allied aircraft also would be allowed to use Turkish bases at Diyarbakir, Batman and Malatya for raids.
Turkish aircraft are expected to take part in those missions, the Foreign Ministry said.
The United States welcomed the developments. “Just in terms of physics, any time you can have your aircraft and your assets closer to your enemy, that’s a good thing,” said Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command.
But the Turkish action against the Islamic State also is likely to upend what had been a tacit peace with the jihadists that had kept Turkey relatively free of spillover from the Syrian civil war, despite the arrival of nearly 2 million refugees over the past four years.
Both Turkish and international aid groups based along the border said they expected retaliation from the militants, who are thought to have established a significant network inside Turkey. More than 1,000 Turkish citizens have joined the Islamic State.
“I’m advising my clients to either completely pull out from the border area or at the very least limit movement to only necessary travel within Gaziantep,” said one Western security adviser who consults for a range of international aid organizations and governments. Gaziantep is a city in southern Turkey that has become a hub for groups working with Syrian refugees and rebels.
“If the Turks have really decided to push to crack down on the widespread and somewhat open presence of Daash in the border area, this will not be the last series of incidents in a very volatile area,” said the consultant, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of his work.
The Islamic State positions hit by Turkish aircraft Friday morning were described by Turkish officials as two command posts and an assembly area.
Turkish officials said that their aircraft did not cross into Syrian airspace to launch precision-guided weapons.
Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the targets ranged from about 200 yards to 2.5 miles inside Syria near the Syrian border village of Hawar al Nahr.
Abdurrahman said several Islamic State fighters were killed in the airstrikes, but fewer than the 35 reported by Turkish media.
Abdurrahman told the Associated Press by phone that the Islamic State had imposed “a blackout on its losses.”
The Turkish prime minister’s office said the airstrikes lasted just 13 minutes and that the total mission took less than an hour and 15 minutes to complete.
“At 03:12 a.m., three F-16s took off from the 8th Air Wing of the Air Force Command in Diyarbakır,” the statement said. “Three targets belonging to Daash were hit during the air operation, which took place between 3:40 and 3:53. . . . At 04:24, our planes have returned.”
Turkish authorities designated the mission “Yalcin” for Sgt. Mehmet Yalcin Nane, who was killed in Thursday’s clash with militants near the border city of Kilis.
Turkish officials claimed the five militants responsible for Yalcin’s death were killed during the airstrikes.
The airstrikes took placed as Turkish security forces launched raids across the country, rounding up scores of suspected Islamic State members as well as people affiliated with Kurdish separatist movements.
Friday’s events marked a major reversal for the Turkish government, which has insisted for months that any U.S. campaign against the Islamic State should be coupled with a plan for toppling the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. In recent weeks, Turkish President Erdogan also has highlighted the advance of the Kurdish YPG militia as a greater threat than the Islamic State to Turkey’s national security.
But there was no mention of any of those points in Turkey’s official statements Friday, and U.S. officials in Washington indicated there had been no change in U.S. policy opposing establishment of a no-fly zone or supporting the YPG’s efforts against the Islamic State.
Turkey’s position also runs the risk of inviting Islamic State retaliation, analysts said.
“I think the foremost problem Turkey will face in this regard is IS foreign fighters – especially those of Turkish origin – moving in and out of Turkey and conducting attacks,” said Aymenn al Tamimi, an expert on Syrian jihadist groups with the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum.
Tamimi said it remained to be seen how energetically Turkey would pursue its campaign against the Islamic State. “I think we should wait to see if the details of the supposed agreement (between the U.S. and Turkey) actually pan out,” he said.
Turkey has attacked targets inside Syria previously in response to errant mortar shells landing near Turkish cities. But that retaliation was aimed at Syrian government troops, who have largely retreated from the border regions.