WASHINGTON - The U.S.-led coalition carried out 38 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq over a 24-hour period Saturday into Sunday with nearly half of the sorties conducted around the self-proclaimed IS capital of Raqqa. Fighting in northern Syria has alarmed neighboring Turkey, which has vowed retaliation if it feels threatened.
A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition Operation: Inherent Resolve said 18 airstrikes destroyed vehicles and bridges in Raqqa province representing, in his words, “one of the largest deliberate engagements…conducted to date in Syria.” He said it will deny the IS group “the ability to move military capabilities throughout Syria and into Iraq.”
A militant website said at least 10 people were killed and dozens wounded in those airstrikes. The airstrikes also targeted IS fighters, structures and equipment near Hasakah and Kobani in Syria and Habbaniya, Haditha, Makmur, Mosul, Sinjar and Tal Afar in Iraq.
Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told U.S. television viewers Sunday he does not see the airstrikes as a new phase in the fight against the IS group.
"We still have not yet worked out an agreement with Turkey on the air exclusion zones on their border which, again, would bring great ground troop ability in. We’re still having issues with the train-and-equip program (of Syrian rebels). So, I don’t really look at this as a new stage. The president’s strategy is really one of containment in Syria and in Iraq, and I really don’t see new developments," said Corker.
Pro-government newspapers in Turkey have reported a Turkish military intervention is possible with a goal of establishing a 100-kilometer long and 30-kilometer deep buffer zone. Turkey has urged Washington and its coalition partners to announce a no-fly zone and safe haven in northern Syria for refugees who, by the millions, have sought safety in Turkey, costing the country billions.
Following recent battlefield successes against IS fighters by the Syrian Kurds, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also has warned Turkey would never accept a Kurdish state in northern Syria.
Meanwhile, YPG Spokesman Redur Xelil tells VOA that IS forces have not taken the city of Ain Isa, northwest of Raqqa.
“We have surrounded a large group of Daesh in south of Hasaka so they are attacking Ain Isa to pressure us to withdraw from our positions. It is certainly false that Ain Isa fell to Daesh. There are clashes currently ongoing in the city and YPG forces are fighting effectively," he said.
Turkey, meanwhile, wary of both the Syrian Kurds and IS fighters, has reportedly beefed up its military presence along the Syrian border to guard against any spillover from the fighting in northern Syria. Ankara has warned it will retaliate if it feels its security is threatened, a message received by Washington last week.
"The United States shares Turkey’s concerns about the presence of ISIL forces in northern Syria, and that that presence poses a threat to the security of the region. We continue to discuss with Turkey and other coalition partners how best to combat ISIL in the region. It’s a complex problem. It’s going to require contributions and support from many coalition partners," said U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby.
Regional analyst Stephen Zunes of the University of San Francisco suggests the uptick in U.S.-led airstrikes may be in response to the growing Turkish security concerns.
"There is also a counter-argument by many people familiar with the politics of the region that this could lead to a backlash in the sense that, whatever tactical gains might be forthcoming militarily, it could end up strengthening ISIS politically in that they would take advantage of the popular resentment against foreign intervention, especially by Western powers and the descendants of their former Ottoman rulers," said Zunes.
The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet Daily News reports the Turkish commanders of troops deployed along the border with Syria will meet this week in Ankara to discuss a possible military incursion following a visit to the region last week by the country’s senior military officials. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said last week there were no immediate plans for an incursion.