The United States launched its first airstrike from Turkey on an Islamic State target in Syria, as Ankara vowed it was ready to step up its own fight against militants.
“A US drone today carried out one airstrike in Syria near Raqa,” a Turkish official told AFP, referring to the town in northern Syria that the IS group sees as its capital.
The drone had taken off from Turkey’s southern Incirlik air base, which Ankara has now opened to the US military for armed attacks on IS targets in Syria just 200 kilometres (125 miles) away, the source added.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu earlier announced that Turkey was ready to begin a “comprehensive” fight against IS jihadists in Syria alongside the United States, after months of staying on the sidelines of the US-led coalition.
The Pentagon announced this week that US armed drones had taken off from Incirlik to conduct missions over northern Syria, but this was the first time an airstrike had been carried out.
Turkey, a member of the international coalition led by its NATO ally Washington, had so far declined to take robust action against jihadists but after a deadly bombing in July in a border town blamed on suspected IS jihadists, it launched limited strikes against the group in Syria.
According to media reports some 30 US fighter jets are due to arrive at the facility in the coming days in order to take part in the operation.
Turkey, long criticised for failing to stop the flow of jihadists to and fro across its border with Syria, has so far concentrated an almost two-week “anti-terror” campaign on the bombing of Kurdish militants.
But Cavusoglu indicated after meeting US Secretary of State John Kerry in Malaysia that Turkey would be stepping up its campaign against IS jihadists.
“The US planes have begun arriving and soon we will launch a comprehensive fight against Daesh all together,” he said, using a pejorative Arabic acronym for IS in a quote to the official Anatolia news agency.
Ankara is waging a two-pronged bombing campaign against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels as well as IS militants, following a wave of violence inside Turkey.
But so far the raids have overwhelmingly targeted the Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq and southeast Turkey, and opponents have criticized Ankara for using the anti-IS offensive as a cover to bomb Kurdish militants in northern Iraq.
“Turkey does not need an excuse to protect its national security,” the Turkish official told AFP, saying that Ankara sees both IS and the PKK as a threat.
“In Iraq, we can take unilateral action but in the fight against Daesh we are a member of an international coalition,” the official said.
Washington has long been pushing its historic ally Turkey to step up the fight against IS, something Ankara had until recently been reluctant to do.
Cavusoglu said at the start of a meeting with Kerry that the anti-IS operation would be helped by moderate Syrian rebels.
“Now we are training and equipping the moderate (Syrian) opposition together with the United States, and we will also start our fight against Daesh very effectively soon,” Cavusoglu said.
“Then the ground will be safer for the moderate opposition that are fighting Daesh.”
The two top diplomats met at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur on the sidelines of a regional security gathering.
Kerry “welcomed Turkey’s recent decision to open its bases to US participation in air operations against (the militants) and its support for Syrian refugees”, a senior State Department official told reporters after the meeting.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week said the formation of a safe zone inside Syria, free from threats, would help return some of the 1.8 million refugees Turkey is hosting.
Cavusoglu on Wednesday said the regions cleared of IS militants would automatically turn into a “natural safe zone” which would be filled by moderate rebels.
Ankara is now planning a mini-coalition including regional countries Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan, NATO allies Britain and France as well as the United States to fight against IS, which it designated a terror group in 2013.
Cavusoglu also emphasized steps must be taken for a “political solution” in Syria excluding President Bashar al-Assad, Turkey’s onetime ally who Ankara now wants to see ousted from power.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is due to visit Ankara next week for talks on regional issues including the Syrian war, he added.
The United States, which designates the PKK as a terror group, has described Turkish airstrikes against Kurdish militants as self-defence.
Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi, however, on Tuesday condemned the Turkish army’s cross-border campaign, urging Ankara to recognize its neighbor Iraq’s sovereignty, in remarks Turkey labelled “unacceptable”.
Within Syria, meanwhile, rebel groups allied with Al-Qaeda fought to advance on a key military headquarters near Assad’s coastal heartland and IS fighters seized control of a strategic town in the centre of the country, a Britain-based monitor said.