A month after Turkey agreed to allow U.S. and allied forces to use its airfields for operations in Syria, the first armed drone strike has been conducted by the United States. According to a Reuters report, the drone was “launched on Monday from the Incirlik air base near the southern city of Adana in Turkey.”
Speaking from a trip to Malaysia, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said, “We’re seeing that manned and unmanned American planes are arriving and soon we will launch a comprehensive battle against Islamic State all together.”
However, the Reuters report is not clear on whether ISIS was actually the target of this particular mission. Earlier reports suggested the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra could be an early target of American missions, given their recent attacks on U.S.-backed Syrian rebels. According to the BBC, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis “did not give any specific details about the target,” and also did not make clear whether the drone successfully eliminated its target.
As for the Turks, they have lately been more interested in bombing Kurdish separatists. Cavusoglu essentially said that his government is waiting for the United States and its allies to begin major operations against ISIS in earnest, before Turkey joins in. The Wall Street Journal reports that U.S. and European Union officials have “asked Turkey this week to tame its attacks against the PKK to prevent further destabilizing the country, threatening the peace talks between Turkey and the PKK.”
The Turks responded by assuring the world that they were quite capable of fighting both ISIS and the PKK at the same time, which misses the point of why they were asked to stop dropping bombs on the Kurds. “Although these operations started almost simultaneously, they are separate,” said a Turkish official quoted by the Wall Street Journal. “Our struggle against ISIS is a long-term one, while the PKK operations can be halted if the PKK agrees to declare a new cease-fire and stop its attacks against Turkish security forces.”
The WSJ also says that manned American jet fighters are still in transit to Incirlik, and are expected to arrive within the next few weeks. Unarmed drones have been stationed at the Turkish airbase for some time, so arming them for strike missions was quickly accomplished.
The Syrian government took this violation of its airspace well, although the comments of Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem included a jab at those U.S. plans to train and support a moderate rebel force against al-Qaeda and ISIS, as well as the Assad regime.
“For us in Syria there is no moderate opposition and immoderate opposition. Whoever carries weapons against the state is a terrorist,” said Moualem. He referenced American assurances that their operations are targeting the Islamic State, which he referred to as Daesh, and declared his government supports “any effort to combat Daesh in coordination and consultation with the Syrian government, otherwise it will be a breach of Syrian sovereignty.”
This raises the interesting question of how carefully manned and unmanned air operations from Incirlik into Syria will be coordinated with the Assad regime. Moualem said that the U.S. advised Damascus before beginning deployment of the thus-far ill-fated New Syrian Force unit.
The Reuters and BBC articles include some more little tidbits about the volatile political situation in Turkey, including the broadening of Turkey’s operations against the Kurdish PKK to include the YPG militia – the primary U.S. allies on the ground against the Islamic State in Syria. Until now, pains were usually taken to distinguish between the PKK and other Kurdish militia groups, but now the Turks are said by Reuters to be more openly “distrustful” of the YPG, drawing what sounds like a “red line” on the Euphrates river for YPG operations.
The BBC judges there is “serious opposition to any Turkish boots on the ground in Syria,” which would seem to emphasize the importance of keeping the Kurds happy. The anti-ISIS coalition is keenly interested in seeing Turkey at least seal off its Syrian border to choke off the flow of recruits and weapons into the Islamic State.
Reuters also reports that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “spoke by phone with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani, informing him of Turkey’s latest military operations and reiterating his view that there can be no peace in Syria without the removal of President Bashar al-Assad.”
Turkey has been insisting on Assad’s ouster for a long time, but those demands have been a non-starter with Assad’s patrons in Iran and Russia, which said “it had not been able to agree on a common approach to fighting Islamic State after its foreign minister met U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for the second time in recent days.”