Turkish warplanes struck seven Islamic State targets north of Aleppo, Syria in 24 hours in the first Turkish contribution to a U.S. led coalition to weaken the proto-caliphate’s grasp on much of eastern Syria, according to the Turkish Foreign Ministry.
“Our jets started last night to carry out air operations with coalition forces against IS targets in Syria which pose a threat to our security too,” the ministry said in a statement Saturday.
Turkish officials speaking on background said the strikes came in two groups. Overnight Friday, two planes struck three targets. Saturday, another two planes struck four targets in the vicinity of northern Aleppo, where the Islamic State has been threatening areas held by moderate rebel forces controlling the border crossing that connects Turkey to Aleppo, including the key border city of Azaz.
“Yesterday two planes belonging to Turkish Air Forces covered with fire three targets and today with two planes, four targets in Northern Aleppo, the IS areas,” according to a high level security official who asked that his name not be used due to Turkish government regulations on discussing military operations.
The United States and Turkey have been trying to come to an official agreement over the last few weeks on the scope of Turkey’s participation in a multi-country coalition that has been bombing the group in both Syria and Iraq for over a year and the weekend’s strikes appear to suggest that a formal agreement had been reached.
“We commend Turkey for its participation in counter-ISIL air operations alongside other coalition nations in the international campaign to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said in a statement, using an alternate name for the Islamic State.
On Aug. 24, both countries announced that they had completed an “air tasking agreement” to allow coordination between the various countries involved with striking militant targets.
Turkey struck a small number of Islamic State targets on July 24, apparently independently of the coalition, followed by scores of attacks on the militant Kurdish group, the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, mostly in the northern Iraq mountains around Qandil that serves at that group’s base.
Turkey had expressed reluctance in the past to directly confront the Islamic State because of the success by PKK-linked militants in Syria in battling the group along the Syrian-Turkish border. Turkish officials have repeatedly described the PKK, which fought a decades long insurgency against Turkey that appears on the verge of resuming, and the Islamic State as equal threats to Turkish security.
The urgency of Turkish participation may increase due to a several day old offensive by the Islamic State against moderate U.S.-backed rebels north of Syria’s largest city of Aleppo that has seen several key villages fall to the group as it appears to pushing to take control of the border crossing at Azaz, currently controlled by a mix of groups hostile to both the Syrian regime and Islamic State.
The loss of Azaz would isolate the rebels holding much of eastern Aleppo from resupply from Turkey as well as replace the loss of the Tal Aybad border crossing, captured from the Islamic State late last month by a mix of Syrian rebels and Kurdish militants.
The Turkish strikes, which occurred in area of the heavy fighting with the Islamic State, appear to have been designed to support the rebels against that offensive.
Since Thursday, the Islamic State has captured five small villages while pushing on the strategically critical town of Marea, which some news outlets were reporting had fallen partially under the control of the group, though that could not be immediately confirmed.
The fighting has taken place in an area the Turkish government refers to a security zone that will serve both as a buffer to keep Kurdish forces from connecting territory captured from either the Islamic State or from the Syrian regime, as well as serve as an area that some of the estimated two million Syrian refugees inside Turkey can eventually return to if the area can be protected against both the Islamic State and attacks by the Syrian regime.
Duygu Guvenc in Ankara contributed.
Mitchell Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent.