Deepening the involvement of a reluctant ally in the fight against the militants of Islamic State, Turkey for the first time sent warplanes to strike targets associated with the jihadist group inside Syria, U.S. and Turkish officials said Saturday.
A U.S.-led coalition has been bombing Islamic State positions in Iraq and Syria for more than a year, but NATO ally Turkey had long resisted actively joining in the military effort. Under a deal announced last month, the Ankara government agreed to allow coalition use of Turkish bases, including the sprawling installation at Incirlik.
Since then, U.S. drones and F-16s have flown missions from the base, which lies close to northern Syria. Previously, such strikes had to be launched from more distant aircraft carriers and other bases in the region.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, traveling in California, confirmed through Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook that Turkish warplanes had been "fully integrated" into the coalition's air operations.
"We commend Turkey for its participation in counter-ISIL air operations alongside other coalition nations in the international campaign to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL," Cook said, employing an alternate term sometimes used — along with ISIS and the Arabic acronym Daesh — for Islamic State.
Turkey's Foreign Ministry said the strikes using its warplanes had begun Friday evening. But the statement pointedly described Islamic State as a group that also poses a threat to Turkey's security — an apparent reference to the Kurdish separatists of the PKK.
At the same time that the Ankara government agreed to actively participate in the coalition campaign against Islamic State, Turkey launched airstrikes against PKK targets in Turkey and northern Iraq. Kurdish fighters, however, have been the most reliable ground forces allied with the anti-Islamic State coalition.
The ministry said fighting terrorism was "a priority for Turkey."
The targets of the Turkish-conducted strikes in Syria were not disclosed, but the semi-official Anatolia news agency said bombs had hit the Islamic State-held town of Manbij in Aleppo province.
Turkey and the United States have agreed to carve out an Islamic State-free buffer zone in a northern swath of the province, close to the border with Turkey. But Islamic State fighters have made recent gains in the area, seizing five villages earlier in the week and menacing the frontier town of Marea.