US F-16 fighters fly first missions from Turkey

Turkey: Erdogan Promises 'No Terrorists Will Be Left'


WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. on Wednesday launched its first airstrikes by Turkey-based F-16 fighter jets against Islamic State targets in Syria, marking a limited escalation of a yearlong air campaign that critics have called excessively cautious.

In a brief statement the Pentagon announced the F-16 strikes were launched from Incirlik air base in southern Turkey but provided no details on the number or types of targets struck. It did not say how many of the six F-16s now based at Incirlik were used in the initial strikes.

Earlier this month the U.S. began flying armed drones from Incirlik, but the F-16 flights add a new dimension to the air campaign, in part because of the added risk to pilots who might encounter Syrian or other air defenses.

Pentagon officials have said the main advantage of using Incirlik is its proximity to Islamic State targets in northern Syria, although a senior U.S. defense official said Wednesday that the F-16s may also be used on missions over Iraq. The official was not authorized to discuss F-16 mission details publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

17 PHOTOS
Turkey, Syria, and ISIS fighting history
See Gallery
US F-16 fighters fly first missions 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)
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

Most U.S. aerial combat missions over Iraq and Syria are being flown from more distant air bases in Qatar and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf region, although the U.S. also is flying F-16s from Muwaffaq Salti air base in Jordan.

The official said the Incirlik-based F-16s are equipped with surveillance and reconnaissance equipment in addition to weapons, and thus can be used to verify targeting information that may be provided by local Syrians or Iraqis cooperating with the U.S. A total of six F-16s are operating from Incirlik; they are from the 31st Fighter Wing based at Aviano, Italy.

With the threat of Syrian air defenses in mind, the U.S. military is considering how to reconfigure its network of combat search-and-rescue forces in the region, the senior defense official said. The official indicated those forces are deemed sufficient for the moment but might change. Other officials have said the U.S. also is considering placing refueling aircraft at Incirlik in support of the F-16 mission.

After months of negotiations between Washington and Ankara, the Turkish government agreed in late July to permit the U.S. to station aircraft at Incirlik in southern Turkey.

A Foreign Ministry official in Ankara said Wednesday that Turkey has not carried out its own airstrikes against the Islamic State recently because the U.S. asked it to wait so that the two countries can coordinate efforts. The official asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The senior U.S. defense official in Washington said the two governments are working on a memorandum of understanding that would set the terms under which Turkish warplanes would be integrated into the U.S.-led air campaign.

Christopher Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War and a retired Navy commander, said the deployment of six F-16s to Turkey provides only a marginal improvement to U.S. air operations against the Islamic State, in part by shortening the flying distance to targets in northern Syria.

More broadly, the escalation is important for bringing Turkey more directly in the conflict, Harmer said.

"Turkey is coming off the sideline," Harmer said. "More than anybody else in the region, Turkey did not want to tangle with ISIS," he added, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State group. "All that nastiness that ISIS can do could be turned against Turkey in very short order."

The Turkish situation is especially touchy in political terms, in part because Turkey is a NATO ally with a different perspective on the Islamic State problem. Whereas the U.S. is focused on fighting the Islamic State militants and has partnered with Syrian Kurds to that end, Turkey's main priority is curtailing growing Kurdish power along its southern border with Syria.

The Turks worry that Kurdish gains in Iraq and in Syria will encourage a revival of a Kurdish armed insurgency in Turkey in pursuit of an independent state. The PKK, a Kurdish terror group, killed two Turkish police officers and the Turks have retaliated, bombing their positions. Other Kurdish fighters have been effective against the Islamic State.

"For a long, long time Turkey has struggled mightily to stay out of this fight because they are so vulnerable," Harmer said.

An early indication of Turkish concern about the chaos in Syria was its request in 2012 for NATO missile defense support. Since early 2013 a number of NATO countries have operated Patriot missile defenses in southern Turkey, including a U.S. Army Patriot unit based at Gaziantep, due north of the Syrian city of Aleppo.

Read Full Story