Striking ISIS from Turkey: Does the coalition have the upper hand?

Ankara has finally agreed to allow coalition aircrafts to use its airbase in Incirlik to strike ISIS positions

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In a move to deepen its engagement with the international community in the anti-ISIS coalition, Ankara, a U.S. ally with the second largest armed forces in NATO, has finally agreed to allow coalition aircrafts to use its airbase in Incirlik to strike ISIS positions.

Previously, the base was used by the coalition forces only to launch missions with unarmed drones.

Following a recent agreement between Turkish and American governments, the Pentagon announced on Wednesday that US military drones carried out the first remotely piloted strikes from Incirlik base into Northern Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) targets on August 4.

In the upcoming days, manned aircraft are also expected to carry out airstrikes in Syria, after new jets arrived at the Incirlik airbase.

On the sidelines of a regional security meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Malaysia, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said: "As part of the agreement reached with the United States, we have made great advances on the technicalities of Incirlik's use and U.S. aircraft have started to arrive.”

Cavusoglu also said: “Soon we will all together launch a comprehensive war against ISIS.”

The decision takes further significance with the latest developments on the ground as members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) who were trained by a U.S. program to fight ISIS militants were recently seized by the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front in Syria.

Turkey has also begun to reinforce its southern border with additional troops and military equipment by early July.

Experts interviewed by Al Arabiya News underlined that the usage of bases in Turkey by the coalition members to defeat ISIS in Syria will be a game changer for anti-terrorism efforts after longtime reluctance to assume a vanguard role. However, experts also said the move should be supported with further cooperation on the ground as the imminent threat is increasingly seen inside Turkey.

Sinan Ulgen, the head of Istanbul-based think-tank EDAM, said the opening of Incirlik is certainly an important and useful development in the fight against ISIS.

“But more will be needed to eliminate ISIS. Air strikes alone cannot eradicate this threat,” Ulgen told Al Arabiya News.

“In that sense, the opening of Incirlik would be useful in a tactical sense. But strategically, the anti-ISIS coalition should be able to find and support land forces that are willing to fight ISIS on the ground,” he added.

Ulgen also noted that this requirement being unfulfilled was the main weakness of the current plan, particularly seen in how ineffective the train-and-equip Syrian rebels program has been.

“So the allies need to come to an agreement; identify, train and equip new non-PYD elements (the Democratic Union Party – a Syrian affiliate of the Kurdish PKK) and non-Al Nusra-related elements of the Syrian opposition to really hope to make a difference in the fight against ISIS,” he added.

Ozdem Sanberk, former undersecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Turkey, said that this decision is an important change of course in Turkey’s foreign policy and marks a breakthrough for the US and the coalition in their confrontation with ISIS.

But, according to Sanberk, it cannot be read as a definitive realignment of relations between Turkey and the US, as long-term differences over tactical priorities between them persist.

“The role of the Syrian Kurds as well as Assad’s future seems to be still there as unresolved issues. On the other hand, for Turkey, ISIS is not the only or even the main potential target,” Sanberk told Al Arabiya News.

“In Turkish and Western media, some even argue that Turkey’s move intends to be a cover for the country’s campaign against the Kurdish PKK positions. These differences still have the potential of crisis between the two countries,” he added.

Turkey’s recent air strikes against the outlawed PKK positions in Qandil Mountain have been much criticized by being heavier than those conducted against the ISIS targets, although the criticism is largely denied by the government officials.

"The threat in Syria gained a different dimension with ISIS. We are a country that has been fighting against terrorism for 40 years. We have gained experience. Turkey considers ISIS as a terrorist organization,” Cavusoglu recently said.

For Sanberk, one reason in Ankara’s decision could be that Turkey feels outshined internationally by the YPG (the Syria-based Kurdish People's Protection Unit) in the battle against ISIS.

“Nevertheless, this is a step in the right direction, and Turkey may not step back on its active fight against ISIS from now on,” he added.

Yet, according to Sanberk, only time will show whether Turkey still has a maneuvering space to slow down or accelerate its fight against ISIS.

But, there are still key differences in the approaches between the US and Turkey.

Turkey advocates the necessity for a safe zone for pushing out ISIS and protecting Syrian refugees, while the US does not support this idea for the time being.

Nihat Ali Ozcan, a retired major now serving as a security analyst at Ankara-based think-tank TEPAV, said this decision created a positive impact over Turkey’s relations with the international community, especially with the US and the EU.

“However, it would also inevitably create some security challenges for Turkey,” Ozcan told Al Arabiya News, underlying the imminent risks of conflict between sub-state groups, as seen between the PKK/ YPG and ISIS, inside Turkish territories.

Ozcan shares his concerns about various vulnerable and easy targets in Turkey, like tourism and Western companies’ branches in the country,.

“Over the past five years, ISIS has established many local networks inside Turkey to recruit radical Salafists. However, these networks are acting independently from each other, which increases the risks of further terrorist attacks inside the country,” he added.

Because of this, Ozcan noted, it is of key importance that the Turkish army develops a strong intelligence capacity for future terrorist attacks, particularly during this tense period.

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