JULY 23, 2015
U.S. Jets to Use Turkish Bases in War on ISIS
By CEYLAN YEGINSU and HELENE COOPER
ISTANBUL -- Turkey plunged into the fight against the Islamic State on Thursday, rushing forces into the first direct combat with its militants on the Syrian border and granting permission for American warplanes to use two Turkish air bases for bombarding the group in Syria.
The developments ended a longstanding reluctance by Turkey, a NATO member and an ally of the United States, to play a more aggressive part in halting the Islamic State's expanding reach and influence in the Middle East. American officials said it carried the potential to strike Islamic State targets with far greater effect because of Turkey's proximity, which will allow more numerous and frequent bombings and surveillance missions.
Turkey, a vital conduit for the Islamic State's power base in Syria, had come under increased criticism for its inability -- or unwillingness -- to halt the flow of foreign fighters and supplies across its 500-mile border.
Up to now, Turkey has placed a priority on dealing with its own restive Kurdish population, which straddles the Syrian border in the southeast, and in the toppling of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, whom the Turks blame for creating the conditions in his war-ravaged country for the rise of Islamic extremism.
But now that extremism has increasingly menaced Turkey, where 1.5 million Syrian war refugees have also been straining the country. A series of Islamic State attacks on Turks, including a devastating suicide bombing a few days ago that officials have linked to the extremist group, may also have helped accelerate the shift in Turkey's position.
Turkish internal security officials had signaled their growing concern about the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, with a series of large-scale raids in the past few weeks, detaining hundreds of suspected ISIS members and sympathizers. Taking the fight to the Islamic State in Syria, however, represents a huge leap.
"The terrorist organization represents a national security threat to Turkey and we are working closely with our allies, including the United States, to combat terrorism," said a senior official in the prime minister's office. The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of government protocol restrictions, also emphasized that Turkey had not changed its position regarding Mr. Assad in Syria.
In what Turkish officials described as the first direct cross-border confrontation with the Islamic State, Turkish jets scrambled as tanks and artillery of its Fifth Armored Brigade shelled militants across the border.
At the same time, Obama administration officials, who have been negotiating with Turkey for months, said Thursday that they had reached an agreement for manned and unmanned American warplanes to carry out aerial attacks on Islamic State positions from air bases at Incirlik and Diyarbakir. The agreement was described by one senior administration official as a "game changer."
The agreement was sealed on Wednesday with a phone call between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and President Obama, another administration official said.
Turkey had allowed unarmed surveillance flights from Incirlik but had thus far balked at anything more muscular.
Officials at both the State Department and the Pentagon said they were hesitant to talk about the pact until the Turkish government acknowledged it publicly. Turkish officials declined to comment on the pact Thursday night.
The United States and Turkey "have decided to further deepen our cooperation in the fight against ISIL," the State Department's spokesman, John Kirby, said in an emailed statement. He said that "due to operational security I don't have further details to share at this time."
The clash between Turkey's armed forces and the Islamic State came after gunmen identified by the Turkish military as Islamic State fighters fired on a Turkish border outpost in the Kilis region, killing one Turkish soldier and wounding five.
The Turkish military said in a statement that its border shelling was a response, and that at least one militant was killed. Turkish news media said a number of Islamic State vehicles were obliterated in the shelling.
The clash came three days after a suicide bomber with suspected ties to the Islamic State struck a cultural center in the Turkish border town of Suruc, killing 32 people and wounding more than 100. That bombing was one of the worst in Turkey in many years.
Obama administration officials said that the United States had agreed to work with European allies, including Germany, France and Britain, to do more to control their end of the flow of foreign fighters crossing Turkey to reach Syria.
Acknowledging that commitment to Turkey, Mr. Kirby said the United States recognized that "the foreign fighter problem is not Turkey's alone."
It was unclear what other concessions might have been made by the United States to conclude the deal, but a NATO official said on Thursday that "the Turks always drive a hard bargain."
The breakthrough came after recent talks between Gen. John R. Allen, a retired Marine who is President Obama's special envoy for the fight against the Islamic State, and Turkish counterparts. General Allen's trip was preceded by a telephone call from Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to Mr. Erdogan, administration officials said.
A senior Defense Department official said recent Islamic State attacks on Turkish targets had played an important role in Turkey's decision to join the fight against the militant organization directly.
"Attacks in Turkey are part of the catalyst for them to think about how they get in the game," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
For the Pentagon, the Turkish decision is huge because the two air bases are so much closer to the Syrian border than Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan and the Persian Gulf, where strikes had been launched.
The agreement will significantly increase the amount of time that American spy planes can hover over Syria. In addition, it will accelerate the response time for manned flights acting on intelligence information.
But even as they were lauding the agreement, American military officials were cautious because they felt that they had been burned by Turkey before.
In 2003, Defense Department officials believed that they had an agreement with the Turks to send the Army's Fourth Infantry Division into northern Iraq from Turkey as part of the invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein. But the Turkish Parliament refused  to grant permission and the division's equipment remained offshore on ships.
While the United States shares Turkey's antipathy for Mr. Assad, the Turks had previously insisted on a no-fly zone in northern Syria, near the border with Turkey, in exchange for allowing the United States to use their bases.
A no-fly zone would create a safe area to arm and train moderate rebels fighting Mr. Assad and allow an opposition government to take root. The United States has largely opposed this because it would broaden Mr. Obama's stated objective of focusing only on the destruction of the Islamic State; however, some within the government, especially at the State Department, believe the idea should be given serious consideration.
Asked on Thursday at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado whether a no-fly zone was part of the deal with Turkey, General Allen said: "No. It was not part of the discussion." He referred all other questions about the agreement to officials in Washington.
Other administration officials said the growing Islamic State threat to Turkey as well as Mr. Assad's shrinking control over territory in Syria had prompted the Turks to drop the condition -- at least for now.
"The agreement seems a watershed moment in terms of airstrikes," said Andrew J. Tabler, an expert on Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
But for the Turkish government, Mr. Tabler said: "ISIS is just one manifestation of state collapse in Syria. Solving it is getting Assad out of Damascus."
Ceylan Yeginsu reported from Istanbul, and Helene Cooper from Amman, Jordan. Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Aspen, Colo., and Rick Gladstone from New York.