ISTANBUL/WASHINGTON - Turkey and the United States say forces are poised to launch a major joint military operation aimed at closing a 98-kilometer strip of the Turkey-Syria border used by Islamic State (IS) militants.
“We have certain plans to put an end to the control that Islamic State is still exercising on a zone of our frontier,” Turkish Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioglu told the Anatolia News Agency, adding that the military operation will be intense. “You will see this in the days to come.”
U.S. ambassador to Turkey John Bass tells VOA that Ankara and Washington are increasing cooperation to stop the militants from shuttling goods and people across the border.
The move comes in the wake of blistering domestic criticism over Ankara's handling of IS, which, some analysts say, flourished along the border partly because of the ruling AK party's Islamist sympathies and hopes that IS militants would help oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“There is passive support by the government and the security forces of Turkey for IS,” Michael Rubin, a Turkey analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, told VOA.
Ankara only recently allowed coalition planes on Turkish soil after IS unleashed its brutal terror across the region, including attacks inside Turkey.
Some have even suspected the Turkish government of cooperating with IS, making allegations that range from weapons transfers to logistical support to financial assistance and the provision of medical services. The Cumhuriyet daily this week published stories that alleged Turkish Intelligence was working hand-in-hand with IS. A former IS spy chief told the paper that during the siege of the Syrian city of Kobani last year, Turkish Intelligence served McDonald's hamburgers to IS fighters brought in from Turkey.
Some analysts say the pending border operation could help silence some of the criticism.
"There has been indeed quite a bit of criticism of Turkey’s behavior, of Turkey acting more cautious than what its Western partners wanted in the fight against IS,” said Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels.
“Turkey was for some time in a non-aggression pact with IS, but if crackdowns on IS continue that would mean Turkey is moving into combat stage with the group,” said Soner Cagaptay, a Turkish-American political scientist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Turkey's armed forces have almost exclusively targeted the Kurdish PKK rebel group and the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish militia group. While the YPG is working with U.S. forces against IS, Turkey accuses it of being affiliated with the PKK.
Meanwhile, Washington and Ankara continue to disagree over some specific logistics on how retake IS-controlled areas in Syria.
Erdogan has been pressing for the creation of a safe area, protected by a no-fly zone. This week, however, U.S. President Barack Obama said that would be counterproductive.
Cumhuriyet political columnist Semih Idiz says even if Ankara can't enforce a no-fly zone, it may be seeking the next best thing: a militarily stabilized frontier that allows for routine ground operations by elite forces.
"You clear a certain area, and have crack teams [military special forces] going in there to do jobs and coming out,” Idiz said. “That is the kind of ground involvement that I expect will take place in northern Syria and that Turkey will participate in. So there might be a region that is protected with lightning strikes and whatever."
Observers warn any deployment of Turkish forces into Syria runs the risk of a confrontation with Syrian Kurdish fighters. They also say that the outcome of the war against IS will depend on how successful Washington is in balancing the conflicting demands of Syrian Kurds and Ankara.