Turkey says authorities arrest 297 terrorism suspects across 16 provinces
Turkish F-16s struck three ISIS targets inside Syria, authorities say
A day earlier, a Turkish soldier was killed in a border clash with ISIS fighters
Turkish warplanes bombed ISIS positions in Syria for the first time early Friday, significantly ramping up the country’s fight against the terrorist group.
The strikes – which struck three ISIS targets inside Syria – come a day after ISIS militants killed a Turkish soldier in a border clash, and in the same week that a suicide blast blamed by Turkish authorities on ISIS killed more than 30 people.
Turkey’s decision to attack ISIS positions was taken during a national security meeting Thursday headed by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
It followed the firefight earlier Thursday in which at least five ISIS militants in northern Syria approached the border and fired on a Turkish border unit, killing one soldier and wounding two others, according to the Turkish military.
Turkey initially responded to the clash by firing artillery into Syria.
The Turkish military has targeted positions in Syria before but only as a response to incoming fire from the Syrian side of the border.
Friday’s airstrikes were carried out by three F-16s that took off from an air base in southeastern Turkey, authorities said.
Soon after, news emerged of a deal to increase U.S. and coalition access to Turkish air bases, including Incirlik near the Syrian border. The deal provides the U.S. military with crucial access from Turkey into Syria and Iraq that it has long wanted for the campaign against ISIS.
“Turkey and the US have decided to further deepen this existing cooperation against ISIS,” Turkey’s foreign ministry said in a statement Friday.
Further strikes not ruled out
The Turkish airstrikes Friday hit two ISIS bases and a gathering point, the Turkish Prime Minister’s office said.
The targets were chosen based on intelligence reports suggesting a buildup of weapons and explosives in the area, a Turkish official told CNN on condition of anonymity.
The fighter jets have completed their mission, but the Turkish official didn’t rule out the possibility of further airstrikes.
“We are committed to eliminating the national security threat,” the official said.
There is a longstanding resolution that has been passed by the Turkish parliament permitting military action against Syria.
“The targets were hit without going into Syrian airspace. If there was a need, we would have gone into Syrian airspace as well,” Davutoglu said.
Any terror group that threatens Turkey’s borders – which are being watched closely – will be met by “the most ferocious response,” Davutoglu said. However, he played down talk of Turkey going to war in Syria, where the forces of President Bashar al-Assad have been battling opposition groups since 2011.
“The war in Syria has been going on for four years, and Turkey has not been a part of a war and will not be a part of a war,” he said.
Shift in strategy?
Ege Seckin, an analyst with IHS Country Risk, said the change in Turkey’s approach was significant.
“Turkey’s cross-border intervention with ground forces and airstrikes indicates a departure from their Syria policy,” he said. “Previously, Turkey prioritized the fight against Syrian President Assad’s forces over the Islamic State. The developments in the past two days suggest that this has changed.”
He suggested Turkey could in part be trying to secure its position in Syria following the deal between Iran and world powers over its nuclear program, “which Turkey probably fears would allow Iran to support Assad more effectively.”
He added, “Turkey is also seeking to contain Kurdish aspirations for autonomy and to ensure its dominance over Syrian armed opposition groups.”
The intensified violence involving Turkey comes after one of the deadliest terror attacks to hit the country in years – a suicide bombing that killed at least 31 people Monday in Suruc, a Turkish town that borders Syria.
The blast struck a gathering of mostly Kurdish activists calling for more help to rebuild Kobani, the Syrian city that was the scene of intense fighting last fall between ISIS and predominantly Kurdish forces.
Davutoglu told reporters Tuesday that early indications pointed to involvement by ISIS in the Suruc bombing, though an investigation hadn’t been completed.
Davutoglu said Friday that Turkish police and military had launched a massive operation against terrorism suspects, arresting 297 people so far across 16 provinces.
“Thirty-seven foreign nationals were detained. A lot of weapons and ammunition were seized,” he said.
Those arrested were members of organizations, including ISIS and the Kurdish militant group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, the Turkish government said.