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Why Turkey joined the U.S.-led mission to ‘degrade and defeat ISIS’

Last month, Turkey agreed to open its air bases to the coalition, enabling American F-16 jets to launch raids

Published: Updated:

After much hesitation to get involved in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) over concerns of blowback, Turkey on Friday carried out its first airstrikes against ISIS as part of the U.S.-led coalition.

“Countering terrorist organizations is a national security issue of priority for Turkey. Our efforts to combat terrorism will continue resolutely,” the Foreign Ministry said, adding that the participation of the Air Force was based on a technical document signed between Ankara and Washington on Aug. 24.

The U.S. Embassy in Ankara tweeted: “Turkish participation in Coalition airstrikes strengthens our capacity to degrade and defeat our common enemy.”

Last month, Turkey agreed to open its air bases to the coalition, enabling American F-16 jets to launch raids from the southern base of Incirlik near the border with Syria.

On 24 July, Turkish warplanes attacked ISIS in Syria after a suicide bombing by in the Turkish town of Suruc that killed 33 people, and an attack on Turkish troops guarding the border with Syria that killed one soldier. However, that was conducted unilaterally, not as part of the U.S.-led coalition.

The advance of ISIS toward the northern Syria city of Aleppo concerns Turkey, which is willing to establish a safe zone for Syrian refugees with the help of U.S.-led airstrikes by clearing it of ISIS.

Nihat Ali Ozcan, a retired major now serving as a security analyst at Ankara-based think-tank TEPAV, said Turkey’s deeper involvement in the coalition was significant.

“The participation of a Muslim country bordering Syria is of utmost psychological importance to increase the legitimacy of the campaign. It will also increase the military capacity to a great extent,” Ozcan told Al Arabiya News.

Experts say Turkey thereby strengthens its trans-Atlantic ties and deflects criticism for not engaging enough in anti-ISIS efforts.

Ozcan said ongoing developments in Syria and the wider region bring a wide range of challenges for Turkey, including some 2 million refugees.

However, “Turkey’s active involvement in these air operations increases the probability of ISIS conducting terrorist attacks on Turkish soil by using dozens of sleeper cells,” he added.

Experts say Turkish involvement in Syria will have major repercussions for Kurdish positions.

Ozcan said the Democratic Union Party (PYD), considered a political offshoot in Syria of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), would see its power decreased.

“However, we should also note that the international coalition will prevent Turkey from targeting the PYD,” Ozcan said, implying that Turkey’s airstrikes would be required to focus only on ISIS for now.

Serhat Guvenc, professor of international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, said the theater of operations would be relatively narrow.

“Therefore, it may not be so easy to confine Turkish involvement to an even more confined area,” Guvenc told Al Arabiya News.

“Politically, the impression is that it was very difficult to deal with Turkey. At this point, introducing additional caveats may not help Turkey improve its image as a reluctant and difficult partner,” he added.

The details of the geographical scope of Turkey’s airstrikes are not disclosed yet. However, Guvenc said if the coalition partners agree on tasking based on geographical considerations like proximity, then Turkey may find it easier to limit its involvement rather than going deeper towards ISIS targets into Syria.

“U.S.-led coalition has assembled assets sufficient to cover the area of operations. The key factor is having access to Incirlik, which is now secure. Unless going deep will be regarded as a firm political commitment, there is no operational need for Turkish aircraft fly deep into Syria,” he said.

Following its increased engagement against ISIS, and as the third most frequently involved NATO ally in U.S.-led operations after Britain and France, Turkey will likely maintain its status as a key partner for the Americans, Guvenc added.