Turkish army tanks take up position on the Turkish-Syrian border near the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – Turkey is pushing back against pressure from the US and Europe to send tanks into Syria, setting out preconditions on Thursday for its allies in the battle against Islamic State.
Turkey wants a no-fly zone and a safe zone in northeastern Syria, to host bases to be used to attack the Islamic State terrorist network and to alleviate the flood of refugees streaming over the border.
“It is not realistic to expect Turkey to conduct a ground operation on its own,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said. “Once there is a common decision, Turkey will not hold back from playing its part.”
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, visiting Ankara for talks, said the military alliance would come to Turkey’s defense should it face reprisal attacks upon entering the conflict.
But Stoltenberg rejected Turkey’s public and private requests for safe zones, saying the strategy “has not been on the table of any NATO discussions.”
Neither has it been under consideration by the United States. In Washington, the Pentagon quickly dismissed the idea of establishing a no-fly zone as outside the scope of the operation set forth by President Barack Obama, despite Secretary of State John Kerry saying hours before that the national security team should revisit the idea.
In Boston, alongside visiting British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, Kerry said Islamic State’s advance on the Syrian- Turkish border town of Kobani is a “tragedy,” but not of primary concern to the US strategy.
“Kobani is a tragedy because it represents the evil of ISIS [Islamic State],” he said. “But it is not the definition either of the strategy or the full measure of what is happening with response to ISIS.”
US efforts seem focused on returning northern Iraq to the control of the government in Baghdad, though the terrorist group is based in Raqqa, eastern Syria. Obama last month vowed to deny the group haven “anywhere.”
Over the past two days, the US conducted at least five air strikes in the Kobani area in an effort to aid Kurdish fighters defending the besieged Syrian city. Kurdish leaders fear the fall of the city, hosting 45,000 minority refugees, will lead to mass killings.
As of Thursday night, local monitors and US intelligence agencies were releasing conflicting reports on the amount of ground the Kurds still held in Kobani. US Central Command, based in Qatar, said the Kurdish militia still controlled “most of the city,” while other reports suggested they only held a third.
Turkey, a country of 77 million, hosts an estimated 1.6 million Syrian refugees.
But, while Ankara finds Islamic State, a terrorist army of nearly 30,000 fighters, to be a tactical security threat to Turkey, its leaders see the Syrian government of Bashar Assad as a strategic threat and the strengthening of separatist Kurds as an existential one.
Roughly 18 percent of Turkey’s population are ethnic Kurds.
Members of the Kurdish community protested Ankara’s response in Istanbul on Tuesday, demanding immediate action to the Islamic State advance on Kobani. Turkish tanks are lined up along the border in full view of the events over the frontier.
Turkish officials say 19 died in the protests.