July 24, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Turkey Escalates the Fight Against the Islamic State

• The Islamic State has benefited from Turkey’s desire to topple the Assad regime rather than the terrorist group; that focus might now be shifting

• After the suicide bombing this week in Suruç, and the July 23 border skirmishes between Turkish troops and Islamic State fighters, Turkey appears ready to play a larger role in the coalition

• Turkey has finally agreed to allow the U.S. to conduct airstrikes against the Islamic State from the strategically located Incirlik air base

• This development has the potential to dramatically increase the operational tempo of the air campaign aimed at weakening the group in its capital of Raqqa, Syria, though a lack of spotters on the ground will continue to be an issue.


The nearly year-long campaign by the coalition fighting the so-called Islamic State has seen several tactical victories, but not much strategic success, with the coalition split at times over how and when to fight the terrorist group. One of the larger impediments—though by no means the only one—to sustained progress in the fight has been Turkey’s decision to focus on the defeat of the Assad regime in Syria and not on the defeat of the Islamic State. This week, however, Turkey’s focus might have finally begun to shift towards a more active and sustained role against the self-proclaimed caliphate on its southern border. If this shift holds, the Islamic State is in serious trouble.

The announcement that Turkey has finally allowed for combat airstrikes against the Islamic State from Incirlik air base might actually prove to be a meaningful success in the conflict. When the U.S. began its air campaign last August, one of its first requests was for permission to fly missions out of Incirlik, which is 250 miles from Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State. Turkey declined, hoping to force more attention and effort on the toppling of Assad. This forced the U.S. to fly from air bases much farther than Incirlik, reducing the total number of strikes while increasing the cost and complexity of each strike.

The opening of Incirlik to direct combat strikes against the Islamic State will increase the toll these strikes will have against the group in Syria. The lack of trained spotters who can call in accurate airstrikes will continue to be a mitigating factor, though there are media reports that the Syrian rebels trained by the coalition are receiving instruction on how to call in strikes—a difficult task. Increased and persistent air coverage over Raqqa will add to the pressure the Islamic State is feeling on its northern flank. There will probably be fewer mass parades in Raqqa in the coming months.

As important as Incirlik is to the air campaign, the possibility of Turkey playing a larger role in the overall fight is far more significant. The July 20 suicide bombing in Suruc that killed 32 people might force Ankara to shift some of its focus away from Assad and towards the Islamic State. The July 23 border skirmish that left one Turkish solider and several Islamic State fighters dead is another sign that the ground under the group’s feet may finally be shifting. Turkey reportedly sent several of its fighter jets across the border during the skirmish, further highlighting the military capability that has not yet been focused against the group. The Islamic State’s aggression on Turkish soil might seriously backfire on the group.

As noted, the fight against the Islamic State has had many alleged turning points, mirroring the Syrian civil war. Losing or gaining one city is seen as either inevitable doom or victory, depending on the point of view. That said, should Turkey commit its sizable military and regional political might to the destruction of the Islamic State—while still pushing for Assad’s defeat—the fight will have truly reached a turning point that might lead to something other than another turning point.


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