Turkey launched its first joint airstrikes with the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State late Friday, bolstering the allies’ attempt to halt the jihadist group’s violent campaign.
The airstrikes targeted Islamic State positions in Syria, Turkey’s foreign ministry said in a statement posted on its website. The joint action came a day after a Turkish diplomat in Ankara said Turkish fighter jets would “soon” operate alongside U.S. warplanes against the militants.
“At a national level and as part of the international coalition, Turkey will determinedly continue its active support for all efforts to eliminate the Daesh terrorist threat,” Turkey’s foreign ministry said, using an alternative name for Islamic State.
Turkey had been reluctant to team up with the U.S.-led coalition formed a year ago. At the time, the jihadists were holding more than 50 Turks captive in Iraq. Turkey was also worried that assaults on Islamic State could benefit separatist Kurds in Syria and embolden Turkey’s own Kurds to pursue their dreams of autonomy.
The hostages were released, and Turkey in July yielded to U.S. pressure to open its southern Incirlik air base to American warplanes, paving the way for the joint aerial attacks. Disagreements remain, however, about the scope of the operation against the jihadists.
“We commend Turkey for its participation in counter-ISIL air operations alongside other coalition nations in the international campaign to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said in a statement, using another name for Islamic State.
U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending U.S. ground troops into combat in Syria or Iraq, and is counting on defeating Islamic State fighters through local forces on the ground, bolstered by U.S. and allied airstrikes.
Joint support for local forces is critical for the success of the air operations, according to Jonathan Friedman, a London-based Turkey analyst at Stroz Friedberg, a global risk consultancy. Turkey and the U.S., though, are at odds over which groups to support in Syria.
While the U.S. has armed Syrian Kurds, Turkey has backed the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham, worried that the American alliance with Kurdish fighters in Syria would buttress separatists in its own restive southeast.
“Airstrikes are only effective when you actually have partners on the ground who can take the territory cleared by airstrikes and hold it,” Friedman said by phone on Saturday. “Turkey and the U.S. don’t see eye-to-eye” on Islamist groups including Ahrar al-Sham, he said.
While Turkey has consented to join the U.S.-led air war against Islamic State, the U.S. continues to resist Turkey’s call to create a “safe haven” free of Syrian Kurdish and Islamic state fighters inside Syria.
Under cover of the war on Islamic State, Turkey is carrying out an offensive against Kurdish militants in northern Iraq, trying to root out opponents.