Turkish fighter jets struck three Islamic State targets in Syria early Friday morning, a response to intelligence suggesting a likely attack from the group, government officials said.
The strikes – which hit two command centers and a meeting point for IS fighters – capped a week of bloody conflict between IS and Turkey, which has led to a more muscular response from Ankara to jihadi activity within its borders.
“We received intelligence about stockpiles of weapons and a gathering of Islamic State militants very close to our border,” a senior Turkish government official told The New York Times. “The operation was carried out, not as an offense, but as a defense.”
Almost simultaneous to the airstrikes, in a series of coordinated dawn raids in 13 provinces, Turkish authorities arrested 251 people suspected of involvement with IS or Kurdish militant groups, Agence France Presse reported.
According to AFP, the airstrikes and mass arrests follow several days of violent confrontation between the Turkish military and police and militant groups, which began when 32 people were killed Monday in a suicide bombing attributed to IS in the mostly Kurdish town of Suruc near the Syrian border.
This sparked an upsurge in violence in Turkey's Kurdish-dominated southeast, where many accuse the Turkish authorities of collaborating with IS, accusations Ankara denies.
Two police were shot dead in southeast Turkey close to the Syrian border on Wednesday, in an attack claimed by the PKK's [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] military wing which said it wanted to avenge the Suruc bombing. On Thursday, another policeman was killed in the majority Kurdish city of Diyarbakir.
Meanwhile, YDG-H [the PKK’s youth wing] claimed it had shot dead an alleged former IS fighter in Istanbul late Tuesday.
Also Thursday, US officials announced they had reached a long-awaited agreement with Ankara to allow US airstrikes on Islamic State targets from a base near Turkey’s Syrian border, the Associated Press reports.
The agreement followed months of negotiations between Washington and Ankara, which has objected to the United States’ prioritization of fighting IS over toppling the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This week’s attacks, however, underscored for Turkey the importance of pushing back IS forces and may have tipped the scales in favor of the US position, the AP reports.
US officials, for their part, described the agreement as a “game changer” in the fight against IS, The New York Times reports. Allowing the US in, however, also pushes Turkey further into a conflict it has so far approached cautiously, despite its geographic proximity to IS operations.
The decision to more directly confront Islamic State in alliance with the U.S. could expose Turkey to a heightened risk of attack by extremists. Thursday’s clash highlighted the dangers Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL, already poses to Turkey, which has long served as the primary lifeline connecting the group’s de facto capital in Syria with the outside world.
One Turkish news agency reported that 35 militants may have been killed in Friday morning’s airstrikes, according to Today’s Zaman. The casualty figures remain unconfirmed.
The Turkish planes did not cross the border into Syrian airspace, according to government reports, instead launching guided missiles from inside Turkey on targets approximately one mile inside Syria. This suggests Ankara was seeking to avoid the confrontation with Mr. Assad’s regime that would have likely been triggered by crossing into Damascus' airspace, reports The New York Times.