Turkey stages first air strikes on Islamic State in Syria

Turkish Airstrikes Hit ISIS in Syria for First Time

Turkish warplanes attacked Islamic State targets in Syria for the first time on Friday, with President Tayyip Erdogan promising more decisive action against both the jihadists and Kurdish militants at home.

The air strikes, which followed a phone conversation between Erdogan and U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday, were accompanied by police raids across Turkey to detain hundreds of suspected militants, including from Kurdish groups.

Turkey has long been a reluctant partner in the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, emphasizing instead the need to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and saying Syrian Kurdish forces also pose a grave security threat.

But Friday's attacks, which officials said were launched from Turkish air space, signaled that Ankara would crack down against Islamic State across the Syrian border, while pursuing the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) - which Ankara describes as a separatist organization - at home.

"In our phone call with Obama, we reiterated our determination in the struggle against the separatist organization and the Islamic State," Erdogan told reporters. "We took the first step last night."

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Turkey stages first air strikes on Islamic State in Syria
Protesters run away from tear gas during a demostration in Istanbul on July 24, 2015. Turkey detained 251 people in coordinated nationwide dawn raids against suspected Islamic State (IS) jihadists and Kurdish militants following a wave of deadly violence in the country, the prime minister's office said.AFP PHOTO/OZAN KOSE (Photo credit should read OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)
Turkish riot police fire rubber bullets to disperse protesters during a demostration in Istanbul on July 24, 2015. Turkey detained 251 people in coordinated nationwide dawn raids against suspected Islamic State (IS) jihadists and Kurdish militants following a wave of deadly violence in the country, the prime minister's office said.AFP PHOTO/OZAN KOSE (Photo credit should read OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)
ADANA, TURKEY - JULY 24: A military aircraft of Turkish Air Force lands at the Incirlik 10th Tanker Base Command in Saricam district, Adana on July 24, 2015. On Friday, Turkish F-16 fighter jets hit three Daesh targets in Syria in the morning. Turkish jets carried out the operation without violating the Syrian airspace, according to a statement by the Prime Ministry. (Photo by Ibrahim Erikan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A Syrian Kurdish woman sits by the window of a house in Suruc in Turkey's Sanliurfa province near the border with Syria on June 27, 2015. Kurdish forces drove Islamic State group fighters from the flashpoint Syrian border town of Kobane, after a killing spree by the jihadists left more than 200 civilians dead. AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken from the Turkish side of the border in Suruc, Sanliurfa province, shows a Turkish solider standing as smoke rises from the Syrian town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, on June 27, 2015, a day after a deadly suicide bombing occurred. The Islamic State group killed 164 civilians in its offensive on the Kurdish town of Kobane, in what a monitor Friday called one of the jihadists' 'worst massacres' in Syria. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
KOBANE, SYRIA - JUNE 20: (TURKEY OUT) A Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG fighters stand near a check point in the outskirts of the destroyed Syrian town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, Syria. June 20, 2015. Kurdish fighters with the YPG took full control of Kobane and strategic city of Tal Abyad, dealing a major blow to the Islamic State group's ability to wage war in Syria. Mopping up operations have started to make the town safe for the return of residents from Turkey, after more than a year of Islamic State militants holding control of the town. (Photo by Ahmet Sik/Getty Images)
TAL ABYAD, SYRIA - JUNE 20: (TURKEY OUT) The picture shows the wreckage left by fighting on a street in the center of the Syrian town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, Syria. June 20, 2015. Kurdish fighters with the YPG took full control of Kobane and strategic city of Tal Abyad, dealing a major blow to the Islamic State group's ability to wage war in Syria. Mopping up operations have started to make the town safe for the return of residents from Turkey, after more than a year of Islamic State militants holding control of the town. (Photo by Ahmet Sik/Getty Images)
SANLIURFA, TURKEY - JUNE 16: Turkish soldiers patrol as Syrian refugees walk to cross the Akcakale border gate in Sanliurfa province, Turkey, June 16, 2015. Kurdish fighters took full control on Tuesday of the border town of Tal Abyad, dealing a major blow to the Islamic State group's ability to wage war in Syria by cutting off a vital supply line to its self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa. According to Turkish security officials 10,000 people to come across from Syria in last three days.(Photo by Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images)
SANLIURFA, TURKEY - OCTOBER 10: Heavy smoke from a fire caused by a strike rises in Kobani, Syria as fighting intensified between Syrian Kurds and the militants of Islamic State group, as seen from Mursitpinar in the outskirts of Suruc, at the Turkey-Syria border, October 10, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. (Photo by Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images)
A Turkish soldier stands on a hill, facing the Islamic State (IS) fighters' new position, 10km west of the Syrian city of Ain al-Arab (Kobane) near the Syrian border at the southeastern town of Suruc in the Sanliurfa province on October 2, 2014. Islamic State fighters were at the gates on October 2 of a key Kurdish town on the Syrian border with Turkey, whose parliament was set to vote on authorising military intervention against the jihadists. Kurdish militiamen backed by US-led air strikes were locked in fierce fighting to prevent the besieged border town of Kobane from falling to IS group fighters. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of Turkish medical service stands in the southeastern town of Suruc in the Sanliurfa province as Syrian Kurds cross the border between Syria and Turkey on October 1, 2014. Tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds flooded into Turkey fleeing an onslaught by the Islamic State (IS) group that prompted an appeal for international intervention. Some of the refugees now want to return to protect their homes and join the fight against IS militants. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
SANLIURFA, TURKEY - SEPTEMBER 29: (TURKEY OUT) Border village of Alizar residents keep guard during the night and wait in fear from mortar fired from Islamic State fighters as they tightened their siege of the strategic town of Kobani on Syria's border with Turkey on September 29, 2014 in Sanliurfa, Turkey. Tonight more than 20 mortars hit Turkey's southeastern Turkish town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province. Turkish troops could be used to help set up a secure zone in Syria, if there was an international agreement to establish such a haven for refugees fleeing Islamic State fighters, President Tayyip Erdogan said in comments published on Saturday. Militants still held their positions around 10 kilometres west of Kobane inside Syria, witnesses said, with Kurdish positions the last line of defence between the fighters and the town. Kobane sits on a road linking north and northwestern Syria and Kurdish control of the town has prevented Islamic State fighters from consolidating their gains, although their advance has caused more than 150,000 Kurds to flee to Turkey since last week. (Photo by Stringer/Getty Images)
SANLIURFA, TURKEY - SEPTEMBER 28: Smoke is seen rising from the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani following an explosion that was followed by further fighting, which saw IS fighters shoot into Turkey for the first time on September 28, 2014 south of Sanliurfa, Turkey. Islamic State (IS, also called ISIS and ISIL) fighters are reportedly advancing with heavy weaponry on the strategic Kurdish border town of Kobani (also called Ayn Al-Arab), which they have surrounded on three sides. Several hundred thousand refugees are reportedly in Kobani and aid agencies are bracing for a massive exodus into Turkey. (Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images)
A Kurdish boy stands as another waves to other side near the Syrian border at Suruc in Sanliurfa province, on September 25, 2014. The numbers of Kurdish refugees fleeing into Turkey to escape the advance of Islamic State jihadists in northern Syria has slowed considerably over the last few days, Turkish officials said on September 24.. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
SANLIURFA, TURKEY - OCTOBER 23: (TURKEY-OUT) Smoke and dust rise over Syrian town of Kobani after an airstrike, as seen from the Mursitpinar crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province, October 23, 2014. The Syrian town of Kobani has yet again seen fierce fighting between Islamic State and Syrian Kurdish forces. Kurdish authorities have agreed to send Peshmerga fighters to the Northern Syrian town to fight ISIL after Turkey has allowed passage. (Photo by Kutluhan Cucel/Getty Images)
ADANA, TURKEY - AUGUST 09: A military aircraft belonging to the United States Air Forces lands on the runway at Incirlik Base in Adana, Turkey on August 9, 2015. Eight military aircrafts belonging to the United States Air Forces were sent to Incirlik Base in Adana as part of the operations against Daesh. (Photo by Volkan Kasik/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ADANA, TURKEY - AUGUST 09: A military aircraft belonging to the United States Air Forces lands on the runway at Incirlik Base in Adana, Turkey on August 9, 2015. Eight military aircrafts belonging to the United States Air Forces were sent to Incirlik Base in Adana as part of the operations against Daesh. (Photo by Volkan Kasik/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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Ankara acted hours after officials in Washington said it had agreed to let U.S. jets launch air strikes from a base near the Syrian border, dropping an earlier refusal to allow manned American bombing raids.

Turkey has faced increasing insecurity along its 900-km (560-mile) frontier with Syria. A cross-border firefight on Thursday between the army and Islamic State, which has seized large areas of Syria and Iraq, left five militants and one soldier dead.

Turkey has also suffered a wave of violence in its largely Kurdish southeast after a suspected Islamic State suicide bombing killed 32 people, many of them Kurds, in the town of Suruc on the Syrian border this week.

But Erdogan's critics say he is more concerned with keeping Syrian Kurdish fighters in check, afraid that gains they have made against Islamic State in the Syrian civil war will embolden Turkey's own 14 million-strong Kurdish minority.

"Even though Erdogan has so far failed to achieve his goals in Syria - the overthrow of Assad - and Islamic State has become a problem, it is nevertheless a convenient instrument for him," said Halil Karaveli, managing editor of The Turkey Analyst, a policy journal.

"Now he has all the excuses he needs to go after the Kurds and also it makes him look very good in the eyes of the U.S., which will be happy that Turkey is on board in the coalition."

Opposition lawmakers from the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party said Erdogan is intent on "obstructing" the advances made by the Syrian Kurds against Islamic State.

"The real aim of today's operations is not the Islamic State, but the democratic opposition," they said in an e-mailed statement.

News of the military operations further unnerved jittery investors, helping send the liraTRYTOM=D3 down nearly 4 percent on the week.

"WITHOUT DISTINCTION"

Three F-16 fighter jets took off from a base in Diyarbakir, southeastern Turkey, early on Friday and hit two Islamic State bases and one "assembly point" before returning, the prime minister's office said.

"We can't say this is the beginning of a military campaign, but certainly the policy will be more involved, active and more engaged," a Turkish government official told Reuters. "But action won't likely be taken unprompted."

Police also rounded up nearly 300 people in Friday's raids against suspected Islamic State and Kurdish militants, Prime Minister Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said after vowing to fight all "terrorist groups" equally.

Local media reported that helicopters and more than 5,000 officers, including special forces, were deployed in the operation. Anti-terror police raided more than 100 locations across Istanbul alone, broadcasters CNN Turk and NTV reported.

One senior official told Reuters: "This morning's air strike and operation against terrorist groups domestically are steps taken as preventive measures against a possible attack against Turkey from within or from outside ... There has been a move to active defense from passive defense."

Turkey has repeatedly said it will take any "necessary measures" to protect itself from attack by both Islamic State and Kurdish militants.

U.S. defense officials said on Thursday that Turkey had agreed to allow manned U.S. planes to stage air strikes against Islamic State militants from an air base at Incirlik, close to the Syrian border. U.S. drones are already launched from the base.

Obama and Erdogan agreed in their call on Wednesday to work together to stem the flow of foreign fighters and secure Turkey's border.

The ability to fly manned bombing raids out of Incirlik against targets in nearby Syria could be a big advantage. Such flights have so far had to fly mainly from the Gulf.

Turkey's stance has frustrated some of its NATO allies, including the United States, whose priority is fighting Islamic State rather than Assad. The allies have urged Turkey to do more to prevent its border being used as a conduit to Syria by foreign jihadists.

(Additional reporting by Murad Sezer in Elbeyli; Ece Toksabay and Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara and Humeyra Pamuk, Daren Butler and Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul; Writing byDavid Dolan; Editing by David Stamp and Giles Elgood)

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