Two days after American F-16s arrived at Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base, authorities are confirming that manned American airstrikes are being conducted from Turkey into Syria, the first time since the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) that such activity has occurred. The arrival of American troops to Syrian skies follows confusion regarding whether Turkey and the United States have agreed to create a “buffer zone” free of jihadis and Kurds in Syria.
The Combined Joint Task Force announced that the first manned mission took place on August 12, though the Pentagon refused to release any more details on the targets or location, other than “Syria” and “the Islamic State.” They noted that airstrikes hit several targets, though the number remains unclear. The United States has previously used armed drones to conduct airstrikes from Incirlik and for months, had been requesting the use of the base to target the Islamic State. Turkey only finally agreed to allow American planes to use the facility following a bombing that killed dozens, mostly Kurdish activists, in the border town of Suruç.
While the airstrikes indicate the United States and Turkey are working in harmony, statements from both governments regarding the nature of the mission have contradicted themselves in recent days. The Turkish government apparently confirmed this week that the U.S. and Turkey had agreed to create a “buffer zone,” controlled by the moderate Free Syrian Army rebels, free of both the Islamic State and Kurdish forces. Kurdish forces in Syria include both members of the People’s Protection Units (YPG and YPJ) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorist group. “The control and protection of this region cleared of [ISIL] will be conducted by Syrian opposition forces and the necessary air defense and support for this … will be provided by the U.S. and Turkey,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said.
In response, U.S. State Department spokesperson Mark Toner categorically denied that statement. “There is no agreement on some kind of zone,” Toner said, adding that he was “not denying” the Turkish foreign ministry statements because he could not, as he had not seen them. “There’s no zone, no safe haven. … We’re talking about a sustained effort to drive ISIL out of the region,” he concluded.
Prominent Kurdish Turks have questioned the use of the “zone” as a method of excluding Kurdish forces from the fight against ISIS. The Turkish government has long been at war with the PKK, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has asserted that a free Kurdish state would be unacceptable to his government. The proposed “zone” would cut in half a large swath of land that could form the basis for a free Kurdistan.
The actual airstrikes are about as coordinated between the U.S. and Turkey as the declaration of a zone of warfare. American officials have been complaining to media this week that Turkey has kept them in the dark about their airstrikes, particularly in Iraq. Speaking to Fox News, one military official asserted that Turkey almost attacked U.S. soldiers on the ground in Iraq, giving American forces ten minutes to leave the target zone. “We were outraged,” he said. American troops in Iraq are helping train the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga to fight against ISIS.
Another official, speaking to The Wall Street Journal, claimed that “Turkey gave American officials assurances last week that it planned to wrap up attacks on the Kurds in short order,” but has given no evidence that it will do so. There have been no direct Turkish airstrikes on ISIS since the day the U.S.-Turkish coalition was announced, with all emphasis going to the fight against the PKK.
While the United States has been hesitant in aiding Syrian Kurdish groups–though these groups have been the most successful in the country in fighting ISIS and oppose avowed American enemy President Bashar al-Assad–American troops have been working with the Peshmerga in numerous innovative ways. The Peshmerga, based in Erbil, Iraq, oppose a PKK presence in Iraq despite also advocating for a free Kurdish state. As they are officially non-state actors, American troops cannot share sensitive information with them, but reports indicate the fighters are using Google Maps to work with American planes, helping scope out and eliminate ISIS targets.