Wednesday 22 November 2017

Turkey finally takes off one glove to target Islamic State

The wife of Turkish soldier Mehmet Yalcin Nane cries on her husband's coffin during the burial ceremony in Gaziantep yesterday. Photo: Getty
The wife of Turkish soldier Mehmet Yalcin Nane cries on her husband's coffin during the burial ceremony in Gaziantep yesterday. Photo: Getty
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Photo: AP
A Turkish military vehicle leaves from the Dag military post, which was attacked by Islamic State militants on Thursday, on the Turkish-Syrian border near Kilis, Turkey. Photo: Reuters
Turkish soldiers patrol near the border with Syria, ouside the village of Elbeyli, east of the town of Kilis, southeastern Turkey.

Raziye Akkoc and Louisa Loveluck

Turkey has waded into Syria's four year-long civil war, using fighter jets to bomb Isil fighters across the border for the first time.

Three Turkish F-16s left the south-eastern city of Diyarbakir in early-morning bombing raids that killed at least nine militants from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Although the authorities did not say what the target was, it was reported that an Isil base and supply depot were struck near the border, with the missiles fired from within Turkish airspace.

After months of international pressure, yesterday's air raids marked Turkey's most explicit intervention in the Syrian war to date and reflected a major shift in its stance towards Isil.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu promised that action against the Islamist group "will not stop".

The shape of Ankara's policy shift had been emerging since Wednesday, after it said it would finally allow US forces to use its bases in the fight against Isil.

Yesterday's action came as 297 arrests were made inside Turkey. Raids in 13 provinces targeted people with alleged links to Isil or Kurdish militant groups, both thorns in the side of Mr Erdogan's government.

A statement said raids were conducted "without distinction" against all terrorist groups, a suggestion that is likely to prompt fears that Mr Erdogan's government will target Kurdish opposition under the cover of its war against Isil.

"Turkey cannot stand by as Kurdish, Leftist and Islamic State militants target Turkey," said Mr Davutoglu. "We will take necessary measures against whoever constitutes a threat to our border."

The Isil members arrested were part of the extremist group's higher management in Turkey, said Sinan Ulgen, head of the Turkish think tank Edam in Istanbul. He called the strikes a "turning point" but feared there could be reprisal attacks by Isil.

After months of pressure from Western nations, Mr Erdogan's hand has been forced by the spillover of Syria's civil war.

On Monday, an Isil-linked suicide attack on a mainly Kurdish youth group in the border town of Suruc killed 32 people and injured more than 100. Two days later, the paramilitary wing of the Leftist Kurdish Workers Party retaliated, executing two policemen in their homes for alleged complicity with Isil.

Turkey entered its first direct combat with Isil militants on Thursday, in a fire fight across the frontier, resulting in the death of one soldier and underscoring the need for a US-led anti-Isil coalition to develop its ability to strike back in the border area.

Ankara's new deal with the White House will allow US forces to launch warplanes and Predator drones, some equipped with Hellfire missiles, from airbases at Incirlik and Diyarbakir, close to the border with Syria. The Turkish military said it would also take part in the operations.

Mr Erdogan's government has been criticised for its apparent tolerance of Isil, which has used Turkey's southern border as a transit hub for foreign fighters and goods.

Many have accused Ankara of supporting Isil in its bid to overthrow Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria.

The week's unrest has knocked Turkey's already flagging economy, causing its lira to fall to 0.36 against the dollar.

The Turkish government has already announced plans for a high-level security barrier along its 500-mile border with Syria.

Tensions have been building there since Monday's attack in Suruc, where the slain youth activists had been discussing plans to rebuild the shattered Syrian city of Kobane.

Kobane was a key battleground between Syrian Kurds and Isil for nine months last year, after the extremists overran the town. It was recaptured by Kurdish fighters in January. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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