The United States has conducted its first drone strike into northern Syria from a base in Turkey, the Pentagon said Wednesday, ahead of what Ankara said would soon be a “comprehensive battle” against ISIS militants there.
Also Wednesday, Syria’s foreign minister said Damascus would support efforts against ISIS, as long as the fight is coordinated with the Syrian government.
Ending its reluctance, Turkey carried out airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria late last month and agreed to allow U.S. warplanes to use Incirlik Air Base for operations, taking a more front-line role in the U.S.-led coalition’s fight against the extremists.
Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said a drone had launched an airstrike from Turkey for the first time Wednesday, but provided no further details.
He said the U.S. was planning to fly manned aircraft out of Turkey but that had not yet begun.
U.S. officials had said the first armed drone missions out of Turkey began last weekend although they did not conduct airstrikes at the time.
Ankara and Washington have been working on plans to provide air cover for a group of U.S.-trained Syrian rebels and jointly sweep ISIS from a strip of territory stretching about 80 kilometers along the Turkish frontier.
Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of an ASEAN meeting in Kuala-Lumpur, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the battle against ISIS from the Turkish air base would begin soon, but didn’t elaborate.
“As part of the agreement reached with the United States, we have made great strides on the technicalities of Incirlik’s use and the U.S. aircraft have started to arrive,” the state-run Anadolu Agency quoted him as telling reporters. “Soon we will together start an extensive battle against ISIS.”
Turkish officials deny the campaign against ISIS is a cover, saying the offensive is a joint operation with the coalition and will only begin in earnest when Washington and its allies are ready.
“There are other countries within the coalition … interested in joining such as Britain and France, while among the countries in the region, there is a possibility that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan will take part,” Cavusoglu said.
“ISIS poses the biggest threat to Turkey both because it is right on the other side of our border and also due to the flow of foreign fighters. It has to be eliminated.”
The Turkish minister also told reporters that once the “effective” fight has begun, the ground would become safer for moderate opposition forces fighting ISIS.
His comments came following reports that members of the Free Syrian Army who went through a U.S. training program to fight ISIS militants were captured by the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front in Syria.
Turkey Wednesday named a new chief of military staff as it takes on a more active role in the fight against ISIS. Land Forces Commander Gen. Hulusi Akar was appointed to replace the current military chief who retires at the end of a three-day, annual High Military Council meeting which decides on promotions, retirements and dismissals within Turkey’s armed forces.
Syrian’s state media quoted Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem as saying in Tehran Wednesday said the fight against the ISIS should be coordinated with Syria. “For us in Syria there is no moderate opposition and immoderate opposition. Whoever carries weapons against the state is a terrorist,” he was quoted as saying during a visit to ally Iran, adding Damascus had been informed about the presence of the U.S.-trained rebels.
“We are with any effort to fight ISIS as long as it is in coordination with the Syrian government otherwise it is an infringement on Syria’s sovereignty,” Moallem was quoted as saying by Syrian state TV.
Moallem has been in Iran since Tuesday where he is believed to have been discussing an Iranian initiative to try to end Syria’s four-year conflict that has killed more than 250,000 people.
According to the Lebanon-based pro-Syrian Al-Mayadeen TV, the four-point Iranian initiative calls for an immediate cease-fire, formation of a national unity government, amending the constitution to reassure ethnic and religious minorities and holding internationally supervised elections.
Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, said his country would hand over its four-point initiative for resolving the Syrian crisis to United Nations soon, the official IRNA news agency reported. He did not elaborate on the plan.
Turkish 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 Assad, sources in Erdogan’s office said.
Meanwhile, the co-chair of Turkey’s main Kurdish party was making an unscheduled trip to Brussels Wednesday, his party said, amid reports he will meet representatives of the outlawed PKK.
Selahattin Demirtas of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has called on Ankara and Kurdish rebels to declare a mutual cease-fire and return to talks on ending their three-decade separatist conflict.