Turkey, which last month approved the use of Incirlik for strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also pledged to work out a “comprehensive” strategy with the U.S. for combating ISIS and creating a “safe zone” along the Turkey-Syria border.
The drone strike Tuesday was a precursor for manned and unmanned flights against ISIS out of Incirlik, about 70 miles from the Syrian border, said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.
Turkey had previously limited the U.S. to surveillance flights from Incirlik, but the new agreement will allow Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve coalition partners “to effectively and efficiently get more aircraft over targets in a timely fashion,” Davis said at a Pentagon briefing.
U.S. warplanes had been making more than 1,000-mile roundtrip flights from other bases in the region to hit targets in Syria, but “basing aircraft in Turkey to support CJTF-OIR gives the coalition another strategic location from which to conduct operations,” Davis said.
In agreeing to the use of Incirlik last week, Turkey also committed its forces for the first time to fighting ISIS. Its airstrikes have been concentrated on hitting bases of the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) in northwestern Iraq. The U.S. has listed the PKK as a terrorist group.
Turkey has also continued to refuse to allow the U.S. to use Incirlik in support of the YPG (People’s Protection Units) Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, which have been among the most effective on the ground in the fight against ISIS.
“As part of our agreement with the U.S., we have made progress regarding the opening up of our bases, particularly Incirlik," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told state broadcaster TRT after meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry at the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
"We're seeing that manned and unmanned American planes are arriving and soon we will launch a comprehensive battle against Islamic State all together," Cavusoglu said he said during a trip to Malaysia.”
Kerry and Cavusoglu also discussed possible help from Turkey for the 50-60 Syrian rebels trained by U.S. and known as the “New Syria Force” who entered Syria from Turkey last month and have been struggling to fend off attacks from the Al Qaida-affiliated Al Nusra Front.
On Tuesday, Davis said that U.S.-backed rebels had repelled an Al Nusra attack but there were “indications” that several of them had been captured.
Last year, Congress approved $500 million requested by the Obama administration to vet, train and equip “moderate” Syrian rebels to combat ISIS in a program that was projected to have 3,000 fighters in the field by the end of this year.
Through May 30, about $41 million has been spent on the Syrian rebel training mission, Davis said, and the struggling group of 50-60 rebels is the only unit of the New Syria Force to enter Syria.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com