ANKARA: The US and Turkey have agreed to work together to drive fighters of the self-styled Islamic State (IS) from northern Syria, a senior US official said on Monday, as Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said its military could “change the balance” in the region.
The potentially game-changing accord was revealed as Turkey fuelled the growing anger of its Kurdish minority by shelling a Kurdish-held village in northern Syria as its warplanes continued to pound separatist targets in northern Iraq.
“The goal is to establish an ISIL-free zone and ensure greater security and stability along Turkey’s border with Syria,” the US official said, using another acronym for the jihadist group.
Details of the zone “remain to be worked out”, the official said during a visit by US President Barack Obama to Ethiopia.
But the official added that “any joint military efforts will not include the imposition of a no-fly zone” — a longstanding Turkish demand.
It would however entail Turkey, Nato’s only mainly Muslim member, supporting US “partners on the ground” already fighting IS extremists.
Turkish premier rules out sending ground troops into Syria
But many question whether Turkey is more interested in limiting Kurdish capabilities in Syria and Iraq than tackling IS.
Turkey has called an extraordinary Nato meeting for Tuesday over its two-pronged cross-border “anti-terror” offensive against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and IS militants.
Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg backed Turkey’s right to defend itself but told the BBC on Sunday “of course self-defence has to be proportionate”.
And he cautioned Ankara about burning bridges with the Kurds. “For years there has been progress to try to find a peaceful political solution,” he told Norwegian state broadcaster NRK. “It is important not to renounce that... because force will never solve the conflict in the long term.”
The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) — which routed IS from the Syrian flashpoint of Kobane early this year with the help of Western air strikes — said Turkish tanks hit its positions and those of allied Arab rebels overnight in Zur Maghar village in Aleppo province.
The “heavy tank fire” wounded four rebels and several villagers, the YPG — which Turkey accuses of being allied to the PKK — said in a statement.
But Turkish officials denied the military was deliberately targeting Syrian Kurds and said it was responding to fire from the Syrian side of the border.
“Turkey has its rules of engagement. If there’s fire from the Syrian side, it will be retaliated in kind,” a foreign ministry official said.
Meanwhile, Mr Davutoglu told a group of Turkish newspaper editors that Ankara’s intervention would “change the balance” in the region, but ruled out sending ground troops into Syria.
He denied Turkey was worried by Kurdish gains against militants in northern Syria, pointing to Ankara’s relations with autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan.
Turkey has given the United States the green light to use its Incirlik air base to attack IS after months of tough negotiations.
Mr Davutoglu said Ankara’s demands for a no-fly zone were addressed “to a certain extent”, according to the Hurriyet daily.
“Air cover is important, the air protection for the Free Syrian Army and other moderate elements fighting Daesh,” he said, referring to IS by its Arabic acronym.
“If we will not send ground forces — and that we will not do — then certain elements that cooperate with us on the ground must be protected,” Mr Davutoglu added.
Published in Dawn, July 28th, 2015