The U.S.-led coalition conducted its first airstrike against ISIS targets in northern Syria with an armed drone launched from a military base in Turkey, a Pentagon spokesperson confirmed.
Laura Seal, a U.S. Defense Department spokesperson, said the mission was part of Operation "Inherent Resolve" and included daily strike updates on the U.S. Central Command website. She said, "This follows Turkey's decision to grant clearance for the deployment of U.S. aircraft participating in air operations against ISIL [also known as ISIS]. By basing aircraft in Turkey, the coalition now has another strategic location from which it can conduct strikes if and when necessary." U.S. drones and aircraft have begun arriving at İncirlik Air Base close to the border with Syria, and an "extensive" fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) militants will soon begin, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Wednesday, only hours before the airstrikes.
He made the comments on the sidelines of a regional security gathering hosted by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Kuala Lumpur. "As part of the agreement reached with the United States, we have made great strides on the technicalities of İncirlik's use and U.S. aircraft have started to arrive," Çavuşoğlu said.
"Soon we [U.S. and Turkey] will together start an extensive battle against ISIS. Now we are training and equipping the moderate [Syrian] opposition together with the United States, and we will also start our fight against ISIS very effectively soon," Çavusoğlu told reporters at the start of the meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Malaysia.
He said it will be safer for the moderate opposition groups that are fighting ISIS on the ground. Çavuşoğlu's comments came following reports that members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) who went through a U.S. training program to fight ISIS militants were captured by the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front in Syria. Since last week, reports from inside Syria have been claiming that al-Nusra Front disarmed and captured at least five fighters trained by the U.S. and coalition forces. Çavuşoğlu said ISIS is the biggest threat in the region and needs to be dealt with using a strategy that is "result-oriented."
According to sources in Ankara, airstrikes will not only aim to weaken ISIS, but will also pave the way for Ankara's demand to create a safe zone in northern Syria. Recently, media reported a U.S. official who said: "The goal is to establish an ISIS-free zone and ensure greater security and stability along Turkey's border with Syria."
In addition, the U.S. has started providing air cover for moderate opposition forces in accordance with the recent deal. Support was provided last week when U.S.-led coalition fighter jets aided moderate opposition forces in a clash with al-Nusra Front militants in Azaz province in Syria. The demand for air protection for moderate opposition forces was expressed in May by Çavuşoğlu: "They have to be supported from the air. If you do not protect them or provide air support, what is the point?"
Another vital issue discussed at the meeting between U.S. and Turkish officials was how to use the air base. Ankara agreed to allow the U.S.-led coalition to use the air base under its control. Additionally, Ankara assured that it would enhance its fight against ISIS, including active participation in U.S.-led coalition operations in the case of a security threat to the border. Turkish fighter jets, however, will participate in the operations not from İncirlik, but from other nearby air bases.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has recently explained why providing air support for moderate opposition forces is crucial. Emphasizing that another benefit of air support is helping refugees return to their homes by means of a secure border, Erdoğan said: "Our support for moderate opposition forces and cooperation with the coalition is very important. The supply routes to opposition forces need to be secure. What we also want is to allow refugees who want to return to their homes to do so. Turkey will do what is necessary to ensure that."
İncirlik is a key joint U.S. air base used by the Turkish Air Force located outside the city of Adana, some 150 kilometers from the Syrian border. Since November 2011, the U.S. air force has been flying unarmed drones from İncirlik Air Base. The U.S. will now be able to conduct airstrikes from the air base.
Before Turkey and the U.S. entered an accelerated stage in the fight against ISIS following the authorization for the U.S. to use İncirlik Air Base, members of the U.S. House and Senate voiced their support and satisfaction. Speaking last week to the U.S. government's official external broadcaster, the Voice of America (VOA), Maryland Senator Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that İncirlik Air Base plays a crucial role in the U.S. campaign to combat ISIS. He further added that Turkey's cooperation strengthens the U.S.'s hand.
In addition, Republican Senator Johnny Isakson, the senior senator from Georgia, was also pleased with Turkey's decision to allow the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition to use the air base. "Strategically, [İncirlik] is very well located. The Turks have not allowed us to use İncirlik [in the past] so the fact they are now considering it, I think, bodes well," he said.