Turkey on Wednesday announced that it was ready to begin a “comprehensive” fight against Islamic State (IS) jihadists in Syria alongside the United States, after a months of staying on the sidelines of the US-led coalition.
Ankara, 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 Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu indicated after meeting US Secretary of State John Kerry in Malaysia that Turkey would be stepping up its campaign against IS jihadists after it gave permission for US forces to conduct armed missions from its Incirlik air base.
“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, quoted by 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, to the dismay of those who want to see Ankara play a fuller role in the US-led coalition against IS.
Cavusoglu said at the start of the meeting with Kerry that the operation would be helped by moderate Syrian rebels that the US and Turkey are hoping to jointly train.
“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 hosted by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
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, Tuesday condemned the Turkish army’s cross-border campaign, urging Ankara to recognise its neighbour Iraq’s sovereignty, in remarks Turkey labelled “unacceptable.”
Turkey summoned the Arab League’s envoy in Ankara to the foreign ministry in a show of protest, the ministry said in a statement.
Qatar, Ankara’s main regional ally and member of the Arab League since 1971, however gave Turkey its full support for air strikes.
– ‘Safe zone in Syria’ –
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.
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.
Last month Ankara said it would allow US warplanes to launch attacks from the Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey, which is just 200 kilometres (124 miles) from IS positions in northern Syria.
The Pentagon announced this week that US armed drones had now taken off from Incirlik to conduct missions over northern Syria.
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.
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 the July 20 deadly bombing in a border town blamed on suspected IS, it launched limited strikes against the group in Syria.
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 emphasised 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.
Meanwhile, the co-chair of Turkey’s main Kurdish party was making an unscheduled trip to Brussels on 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 ceasefire and return to talks on ending their three-decade separatist conflict.