Turkey Grants U.S. Permission To Use Air Base Near Syrian Border

Jul 24, 2015
Originally published on July 27, 2015 2:58 pm
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Turkey is getting more serious about fighting the self-declared Islamic State. For the first time, Turkish war planes have targeted ISIS militants. Turkey has also agreed to allow the United States military to use Turkish territory as a base for airstrikes against the militants. These are signs that Turkey and the U.S. are closer to a common strategy. NPR's Deborah Amos joins us now. She's back from a recent trip to Turkey's border with Syria - has covered this story for years. Hi, Deb.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So why is it a big deal the U.S. can use Turkey as a base?

AMOS: Steve, this is a real estate question. It's all about location. This airbase, Incirlik, is about 200 miles from Syria and ISIS targets. Now coalition jets are taking off from bases in the Gulf. They're flying more than a thousand miles. So what this means is less refueling, more time in the air. And that's a big change. Turkey signing on is also a game changer. Turkey's been frustrated with Washington policy on fighting ISIS. They say that you have to fight Bashar al-Assad in Syria at the same time, but Turkey has been increasingly threatened by ISIS.

INSKEEP: I'm wondering if they're feeling that threat in part because of recent events. There was a suicide attack in a Turkish border town just this week. And also this week, militants fired on a Turkish military position. Has it been that recently that the Turks have changed their views?

AMOS: It's not those specific events, but that certainly will help the Turks explain to their people why they shifted policy. This is after months of talks. Now, what the Turkish media reported is that the final agreement was hammered out early in July. And that's when Gen. John Allen - he's the retired Marine who is President Obama's special envoy for the fight against the Islamist State - he was in Ankara for three days of talks with a Pentagon delegation. After that suicide attack on Monday in this border town of Suruc, killing dozens, Obama did call the Turkish president. And that's when it was finalized.

INSKEEP: Well, what made the Turks so reluctant before - reluctant allies of the United States here?

AMOS: They disagreed with Washington over strategy, and they were using Incirlik as a bargaining chip. Turkey has long-standing demands. They want a protected buffer zone inside Syria. They have taken in more than 2 million refugees. They can't handle any more. There's potentially millions more Syrians who could try to cross that border, so Turkey wants a buffer zone. It's not clear if that is part of the deal. The Turkish media suggests it is. Washington says it's not. ISIS has increasingly become a threat, so Turkey's moved large contingents of their military down to the border. We saw them down there. I was there earlier in July. They'd been stepping up security. The army is digging a 225-mile trench along the border. So it's clear they've been preparing for a while for this shift.

INSKEEP: And they certainly know that there are already plenty of ISIS-affiliated people - or suspects, anyway - on their side of that big trench.

AMOS: Yes. In fact, in the past 24 hours, there's been a big police sweep, supported by helicopters, special forces - 13 cities - and reports of 250 people detained. This comes after the first airstrikes against ISIS militants. This is the second sweep in a month. Militants could seriously hurt Turkey's economy. If there's a suicide bomb during tourist season, that is a terrible thing. So Turkey has shifted policy, and this appears to be part of that shift.

INSKEEP: Deborah, thanks as always.

AMOS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Deborah Amos. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.