Turkey-US realignment reaches top point for northern Syria

Turkey allows US-led coalition air forces to use Incirlik NATO base located 100 km from northwest Syrian border for airstrikes against ISIS reaching comprehensive agreement for northern Syrian issues

Photo by: AA
Photo by: AA

Updated Jul 28, 2015

US officials have said Turkey reached a comprehensive agreement with the US government to allow its Incirlik NATO base located 100 km (60 miles) from northwest Syrian border and Turkish airfield to be used by the US-led coalition air forces for airstrikes against ISIS in order to execute a joint action plan for northern Syrian issues.

Incirlik air base is located in the Turkish southern province of Adana and it has been used by US and NATO forces for various conflicts since 1958.  

The Washington Post reported that, “The Incirlik deal was sealed in a telephone conversation Wednesday between President Barack Obama and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan,” according to a senior US administration official.

A high-ranking American official described the agreement as a “game changer,” the New York Times  reported.

Turkish media reported that a critical cabinet meeting on July 22 had taken up recent incidents connected to militant attacks and border security and eventually made a decision to approve the deal.

Turkish daily Hurriyet has reported that the general framework of the agreement was constructed during US special envoy John Allen’s visit to Turkey on July 7-8.

US special envoy on ISIS, retired general Allen and US Undersecretary of Defense Christine Wormuth had reportedly held long meetings with Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu at the time.

The US delegation also met with Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and National Intelligence Agency (MIT) officials in the same visit, the Turkish media previously reported.

Hurriyet has reported that the agreement mainly targets activities of militant groups like ISIS and the  Nusra Front in northern Syria. US officials said, the coalition warplanes and armed drones could move more quickly and efficiently against the groups in their northern Syrian strongholds following the agreement because of the proximity of the base to the targeted region, the WP reported.  

ISIS is already controlling a zone from Jarablus to Marea along the Turkish border which is also laid out between the two Kurdish “cantons” Kobani and Afrin.  

Hurriyet has claimed that this area between Jarablus and Marea which is 90-kilometre long will now be declared a no-fly-zone by the parties of the agreement.

Reports previously stated that ISIS recently attacked the area between Azez and Marea in northwestern Syria which is controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) after the group lost Tal Abyad to the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the militant wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD).

If ISIS captures the area, it will able to take control of Oncupinar border crossing to Turkey, and could get closer to reach the Cilvegozu crossing.

Turkey does not want ISIS to advance into this area for several reasons one of which is the culmination effect of capturing the crossings could cause a new wave of refugee migration from Syria to Turkey. Another reason is Turkey could lose its total access to northwestern Syrian border if ISIS takes over the area.

Therefore, Turkey and the US think to establish the mentioned zone where the FSA and partly ISIS have a presence at a depth of 40 kilometres to 50 kilometres in the region, Hurriyet reported.

However, the newspaper report has not clarified whether the area between Azez and Marea belongs to the alleged planned no-fly-zone. If that is the case, then, the zone should not be 90-kilometre but 110-kilometre long.

Turkish media previously reported that Ankara is originally planning to establish a safe zone along the 110-kilometre long Turkish border from Karkamis (Jarablus) to Oncupinar [closer to Azez] crossing at a depth of 28 kilometres to 33 kilometres and gave a directive to the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) to take necessary measures.  

The establishment of a no-fly-zone could help arm and train moderate opposition groups against Syrian President Bashar al Assad and gradually let an alternative government take root by creating a safe area.

“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,” the NYT reported.

General Allen replied, when asked on Thursday at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado whether a no-fly zone was part of the deal with Turkey, saying that “No. It was not part of the discussion,” the NYT report also stated. Allen did not answer other questions connected to the agreement referring to officials in Washington.

The officials at Washington commented on the Turkish condition of a safe zone saying that the Turks have dropped it at least for now because ISIS threat to Turkey has been growing as Assad’s control over territory in Syria has weakened in the favour of the group, the newspaper also reported.

Hurriyet’s sources have indicated that the coalition forces will coordinate the use of the Incirlik base with Turkish Air Forces and “when needed,” the Turkish jets might also participate in the missions carrying out against ISIS.

Turkey has already begun an air bombardment against ISIS after the group attacked Turkish troops killing one Turkish soldier in the southern district of Elbeyli near Syrian border.

Turkey will also support coalition attacks by its artillery corps “if regarded necessary,” the newspaper stated.

The agreement has no direct intention against the PYD, but if the group does not attend Turkish concerns regarding the territorial integrity of Syria and demographic changes in northern Syria, then, Turkey can intervene to prevent the PYD activities, the report also said.

The PYD was able to join the Kobani and Jazira “cantons,” by capturing the district of Tal Abyad on June 15 and now the Kurdish group controls most of the Syria’s border with Turkey.

The group is considered by Turkey as the Syrian affiliate of the outlawed PKK.

The WP commented on the latest Turkish position saying that, “By aligning more closely with the U.S.-led coalition, Turkey may be seeking to forestall further Kurdish gains in the eastern border region and secure more robust support for the Syrian rebels in the west than would have been possible had it remained on the sidelines of the fight.”

TRTWorld and agencies