Turkey’s increasingly conflicted role in fight against ISIS

According to a report via The Washington Post, extensive bilateral meetings between American and Turkish officials have resulted in a welcome framework agreement. The talks have led both nations to consent to a plan that would finally result in the NATO ally committing to fight directly Islamic State militants battling Kurdish fighters on Syria’s northern border.

While the administration reportedly rejects the creation of a no-fly zone along the Turkish-Syrian border, a new plan would create a “safe zone” along the border policed by Turkish forces in which U.S.-backed anti-ISIS militants would enter Syria.

“Under the plan, U.S. aircraft flying from Turkey’s Incirlik air base would target positions the militants currently hold along the border north of Aleppo, eastward toward the besieged town of Kobane,” The Post reported. “Turkish special forces would move into the area to assist targeting and help Syrian opposition fighters consolidate their hold on the territory.”

The proposal at least partly addresses Turkey’s long-standing desire for a protected buffer zone inside Syria along the entire 511-mile border, while providing the faltering rebel fighters with a much-needed boost.

In exchange, U.S. access to Incirlik for use of manned warplanes and armed drones throughout Syria would add as many as six hours to the amount of time that individual strike aircraft could spend “on station,” locating and reaching targets. Aircraft currently striking Islamic State positions in northern and eastern Syria fly from bases in the Persian Gulf, a distance of about 1,000 miles.

This plan would also necessarily require a “significant increase” in the amount of coalition funding and airpower presently committed to fighting the Islamic State inside Syria, according to The Post. Nevertheless, this commitment from Turkey to provide for its border security would be a positive development, particularly considering the disturbing reports which indicate that ISIS fighters are freely transiting across the Turkish border.

“ISIS launched an attack Saturday on the Syrian border town of Kobani from Turkey, a Kurdish official and activists said, although Turkey denied that the fighters had used its territory for the raid,” The CBC reported over the weekend.

The assault began when a suicide bomber driving an armoured vehicle detonated his explosives on the border crossing between Kobani and Turkey, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Nawaf Khalil, a spokesman for Syria’s powerful Kurdish Democratic Union Party.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group “used to attack the town from three sides,” Khalil said. “Today, they are attacking from four sides.”

Associated Press journalists saw thick black smoke rise over Kobani during the attack. The sound of heavy gunfire echoed through the surrounding hills as armoured vehicles took up positions on the border. The Observatory said heavy fighting also took place southwest of the town where ISIS brought in tanks to reinforce their fighters.

“It is now clear that Turkey is openly co-operating with Daesh,” a Kurdish official said, using a loose acronym for the Islamic State which is popular in the region.

It is hard to imagine that ISIS fighters could have infiltrated Turkey with the intention of mounting attacks into Kobane without the tacit support of local Turkish authorities, even despite the porous nature of that border region.

In fact, this would not even be the first time that Turkish authorities were accused of indifference or worse toward ISIS.

“Local Turkish-Kurdish farmers have been reporting for weeks that they see militants slip back and forth, especially to the west of the mainly Kurdish town, and Kurdish activists have photographed ISIS fighters apparently fraternizing with Turkish soldiers at the final Turkish border fence, which would put them, officially, inside Turkey,” observed a Daily Beast reporter.

Marshaling Turkish forces to finally address the threat posed by ISIS would be a net benefit for the West, particularly given Ankara’s apparent desire to appear neutral in this conflict.