Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Friday Turkey could send troops into Syria to combat ISIS shortly after it was announced that coalition aircraft could start flying missions against ISIS from Turkish airbases.
In the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), NATO ally Turkey would be prepared to send its army across the border into Syria "if there was such a need," Davutoglu said at a news conference Friday.
Davutoglu signaled that the policy turnabout for Turkey, which had focused on ousting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad rather than ISIS, was permanent.
"This is a process," Davutoglu said. "It is not limited to one day or to one region. The slightest movement threatening Turkey will be retaliated against in the strongest way possible."
Earlier Friday, Turkish warplanes fired from Turkish airspace across the border at ISIS targets in Syria for the first time and Ankara also announced that restrictions on the use of the huge U.S. airbase at Incirlik, Turkey, had been lifted to allow airstrikes in Syria by manned aircraft and drones.
"Anytime your aircraft and assets are closer to the enemy, that's a good thing," said Air Force Col. Pat Ryder, a U.S. Central Command spokesman.
Turkey, the U.S. and coalition partners have already begun coordinating to "deconflict" their sorties against ISIS, Ryder said. "Turkey certainly gave us a headsup" when its warplanes fired into Syria early Friday, Ryder said.
The opening of Incirlik would put U.S. warplanes about 250 miles from the Syrian border, as opposed to the more than 1,000-mile round-trip missions now being flown from bases in the Gulf.
Turkey's action, called a "game changer" by an Obama administration official quoted by the New York Times, followed 10 trips to Ankara by retired Marine Gen. John Allen, President Obama's special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition.
"We've been allies for very long time" and "We're both faced with a real crisis," Allen said of the threat posed by ISIS to the U.S. and Turkey. In opening up Incirlik, "We have seen the evolution of the conversation with Turkey take a very important turn. If it all works out, I think we'll all be pleased," Allen said at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado.
Allen said Turkey's help would be vital in cutting off the flow of foreign fighters to bolster ISIS' ranks. "It's no secret that the principal avenue of approach has been through Turkey," Allen said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com