US drone hits Syria in first lethal strike launched from Turkey

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Turkey Continues Air Strikes

WASHINGTON/ANKARA (Reuters) -- The United States has conducted its first drone strike into northern Syria from a base in Turkey, the Pentagon said on Wednesday, ahead of what Ankara said would soon be a "comprehensive battle" against Islamic State militants there.

A spokesman in Washington said the raid by an unmanned drone was launched on Monday from the Incirlik air base near the southern city of Adana in Turkey, a U.S. ally with the second largest armed forces in NATO. Preparations were underway for strikes inside Syria by manned U.S. warplanes.

Until recently, only reconnaissance drones flew missions from Incirlik.

Related images from Turkey, Syria and ISIS fighting:

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US drone hits Syria in first lethal strike launched from Turkey
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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But Turkey formally agreed to open its air bases to U.S. and coalition strike aircraft last month, a major policy change after years of reluctance to take a frontline role against the Islamist fighters pressing on its borders.

Ankara and Washington have been working on plans to provide air cover for a group of U.S.-trained Syrian rebels and jointly sweep Islamic State from a strip of territory stretching about 80 km (50 miles) along the Turkish frontier.

"As part of our agreement with the U.S. we have made progress regarding the opening up of our bases, particularly Incirlik," Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu earlier told state broadcaster TRT, referring to a major air base near the southern city of Adana.

"We're seeing that manned and unmanned American planes are arriving and soon we will launch a comprehensive battle against Islamic State all together," he said during a trip to Malaysia.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem was quoted by state television on Wednesday as saying Syria supported efforts to combat Islamic State provided they were coordinated with Damascus.

"For us in Syria there is no moderate opposition and immoderate opposition. Whoever carries weapons against the state is a terrorist," he was quoted as saying during a visit to ally Iran, adding Damascus had been informed about the presence of the U.S.-trained rebels.

"The United States contacted us before they sent in this group and said they are fighting against Daesh (Islamic State) and not the Syrian army at all," he said.

"We said we support any effort to combat Daesh in coordination and consultation with the Syrian government, otherwise it will be a breach of Syrian sovereignty."

POTENTIAL "GAME-CHANGER"

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan spoke by phone with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani, informing him of Turkey's latest military operations and reiterating his view that there can be no peace in Syria without the removal of President Bashar al-Assad, sources in Erdogan's office said.

Tehran, which has stood by Assad through more than four years of civil war, said it would present the United Nations with its own peace plan for Syria.

Russia, another Assad ally, meanwhile said it had not been able to agree on a common approach to fighting Islamic State after its foreign minister met U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for the second time in recent days.

Diplomats familiar with the U.S.-led coalition's plans say cutting off Islamic State's access to the Turkish border, over which foreign fighters and supplies have flowed, could be a game-changer in the fight against the insurgents.

The core of the U.S.-trained rebels, who number fewer than 60, will be well equipped and be able to call in close air support when needed, they say.

But there are major challenges.

Washington said on Tuesday it had indications some of the rebels trained by its military were captured by fighters from al Qaeda's Syria wing, Nusra Front, underscoring the vulnerability of a group only deployed to the battlefield in recent weeks.

Turkey is meanwhile distrustful of the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which has proved a useful U.S. ally in fighting Islamic State, and which controls adjacent territory. Ankara wants the Kurdish guerrillas to advance no further than the Euphrates river, on the eastern fringe of the planned "safe zone".

COALITION FORCES

Turkey launched several air strikes against Islamic State fighters in northern Syria just under two weeks ago after one of its soldiers was killed in cross-border fire. It also carried out near-simultaneous attacks on camps belonging to the PKK Kurdish militant group in northern Iraq.

Turkey fears Kurdish fighters could build on Syrian Kurdish gains and move toward creation of a Kurdish state embracing Iraqi, Syrian and Turkish territory.

Opponents have accused President Tayyip Erdogan of using the war against Islamic State as a cover for preventing Kurdish gains, pointing out the air strikes against the PKK have so far been heavier than those against the Islamist radicals.

Turkish officials deny the campaign against Islamic State is a cover, saying the offensive is a joint operation with the coalition and will only begin in earnest when Washington and its allies are ready.

"There are other countries within the coalition ... interested in joining such as Britain and France, while among the countries in the region, there is a possibility that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan will take part," Cavusoglu said.

"Islamic State poses the biggest threat to Turkey both because it is right on the other side of our border and also due to the flow of foreign fighters. It has to be eliminated."

Islamic State has seized large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq in its drive to create a caliphate.

Erdogan has said a "safe zone" created by pushing out Islamic State could allow 1.7 million refugees in Turkey to start going home. U.S. officials say this is not the main aim, while the United Nations has warned against calling it a "safe zone" unless the protection of civilians can be guaranteed.

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