Multiple leaks in U.S. and Turkish media on Thursday claimed that the United States and Turkey have reached a deal for U.S.-led coalition forces to use Turkey's Incirlik base for operations against the Islamic State following a phone call late Wednesday between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and U.S. President Barack Obama. Our team has been closely tracking a number of events over the past month, including a Turkish military buildup at the Syrian border, an intensification of anti-Islamic State security operations in Turkey, a recent visit to Ankara by a high-level U.S. delegation and the recent Islamic State suicide attack in Suruc near the Syrian border. Though it was clear to us that some kind of understanding was developing between Washington and Ankara that would inevitably deepen Turkey's military footprint, the scope and details of that understanding were foggy until now.
A Hurriyet report citing an unnamed U.S. State Department official claims that the agreement reached would have coalition aircraft operating out of Incirlik air base by August. The flurry of leaks, which cited unnamed officials, correlate with the July 7 visit of a high-level political, military and intelligence delegation to Ankara. This delegation, led by Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Christine Wormuth and special U.S. presidential representative Gen. John Allen, indicated significant coordination was taking place between Washington and Ankara on both the strategic and technical levels. Rumors at the time suggested that discussions on Incirlik figured into these talks.
Just a few days before that visit, there was a flare-up in discussions in Turkey over a potential military intervention in Syria. Turkey's military leadership and political opposition strongly resisted the idea of sending Turkish forces into Syria, and the Turkish government eventually doused speculation by saying there were no immediate plans for an incursion. However, Turkey did deploy a significant number of troops to the Syrian border in early July. The deployment, and the talk of an incursion, raised the possibility that Turkey was preparing to establish a buffer zone inside the Islamic State-held areas of northern Syria. If Turkey concluded that the Islamic State threat had become too unwieldy in terms of raising the threat of jihadist attacks inside Turkey, preventing Turkish-sponsored rebels from advancing and contributing to the expansion of Kurdish autonomy, then the decision to crack down on the Islamic State inevitably would be met with retaliation. And if Turkey were already preparing itself to absorb that cost, then it would make sense to also reopen the discussion with the United States over the use of the Incirlik base with the potential for Turkey to secure approval, or at least a blind eye, for the establishment of a buffer zone in northern Syria.
From the contents of the leak so far, it does not appear that Washington has changed its mind and approved of the idea of a buffer zone or no-fly zone in northern Syria. In fact, the United States would still likely publicly object to such actions if Turkey moved to establish them. Still, objection does not necessarily translate into prevention. The United States could very well allow these operations to take place but would avoid taking part and committing resources to assist a Turkish intervention.
Turkey does need something in return for opening up Incirlik, however. Stratfor has received some indication that this is where the train-and-equip mission for Syrian rebels would come into the equation. This fledgling force is composed of heavily vetted Sunni Syrians who would be deployed into Syria to fight the Islamic State. So far, the number of these forces has been extremely limited, and only 60 fighters have recently been deployed into Syria. Turkey has been frustrated with the constraints the United States has imposed in vetting and admitting fighters into this force, but Washington has serious concerns about the potential for jihadist elements to join the elite fighting force as well as the potential for this force to concentrate on the Syrian regime instead of the Islamic State. We are told the United States may have reassured Turkey that Ankara will have more say over the vetting process to allow a significant increase in recruitment. If true, more numbers could be added to this force within the next few weeks.
Apart from the Turkish military movements and the train-and-equip mission, there has also been a significant change in Turkey's posture toward the Islamic State during the past month that plays into the narrative centering on the Incirlik air base. Amid military movements, Turkey started clamping down on cross-border movements by Islamic State operatives, and on July 10 Turkish law enforcement even went as far as conducting separate raids across the country and arresting 21 Islamic State members. Previously, Turkey had avoided taking direct action against the Islamic State, and the Islamic State had not directly attacked Turkey. Soon after the increased security operations against the Islamic State, however, the jihadist group responded with a suicide attack in the Turkish town of Suruc on July 20. Turkey's changing posture regarding the Islamic State is becoming more apparent; on Thursday, Turkish forces engaged in their first direct firefight with Islamic State members on the Turkish border.
Turkey's stance toward the Islamic State shifted in late June and early July — around the same time the agreement on the use of the Incirlik air base was finalized. The agreement provides Turkey with a clear motive for changing its strategy toward the Islamic State: Taking a more active role in the anti-Islamic State coalition would have disrupted the relationship between Ankara and the jihadist movement, whereby both sides avoided directly confronting each another. With Turkey choosing to break that balance, it makes perfect sense for Turkey to pre-empt the potential fallout by cracking down on Islamic State activity within Turkey and on Turkey's border with Syria.
Turkey is preparing itself for a military challenge in northern Syria and seems to have some kind of an understanding with the United States on what the next steps will be. Whether Turkey proceeds to establish a buffer zone will be heavily influenced by Turkish domestic politics. For now, a military intervention in Syria remains highly unpopular among the Turkish electorate. Rather than getting the rally-around-the-flag effect from the Suruc attack, the Turkish opposition squarely blamed the ruling Justice and Development Party for a foreign policy that they claim has made the country a target for jihadists. The ruling party is still in the midst of trying to form a coalition with the center-left secular Republican People's Party, but the very possible failure of those talks would lead to early elections. A polarizing move like a military intervention in northern Syria would not work in the ruling party's favor unless the tide of public opinion is turned by a major Islamic State attack in one of Turkey's metropolitan centers. While we keep watch on the political barometer in Turkey, the battlefield in northern Syria and activity out of Incirlik should provide some additional clues in the coming weeks about Turkey's military intentions and where it stands in its ongoing negotiations with the United States.