US Defers Turkey’s Request for Bigger Air Role

US Defers Turkey’s Request for Bigger Air Role US Defers Turkey’s Request for Bigger Air Role

Since Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet last week, the United States has quietly put on hold a longstanding request for its NATO ally to play a more active role in the US-led air war against Islamic State militants.

The move, disclosed to Reuters by a US official, is aimed at allowing just enough time for heightened Turkey-Russia tensions to ease. Turkey has not flown any coalition air missions in Syria against IS since the Nov. 24 incident, two US officials said.

The pause is the latest complication over Turkey’s role to have tested the patience of US war planners, who want a more assertive Turkish contribution, particularly in securing a section of border with Syria that is seen as a crucial supply route for IS.

As Britain starts strikes in Syria and France ramps up its role in the wake of last month’s attacks on Paris by the extremist group, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter publicly appealed this week for a greater Turkish military role.

The top US priority is for Turkey to secure its southern border with Syria, the first official said. US concern is focused on a roughly 98-km stretch used by IS to shuttle foreign fighters and illicit trade back and forth.

But the United States also wants to see more Turkish airstrikes devoted to IS, even as Washington firmly supports Ankara’s strikes against Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party, viewed by both countries as a terrorist group.

Carter told a congressional hearing this week that most Turkish air operations have been targeted at the PKK rather than at IS, but US officials acknowledge some promising signs from Turkey, including moves to secure key border crossings.

For example, Turkish F-16 fighter jets last month joined an air operation to support Syrian rebels taking back two villages from IS along the so-called Mara Line, a senior Obama administration official told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The United States does not give data on the number or type of missions conducted by Turkish air force flights in Syria. Turkey rejects any suggestion it is not playing its part in the fight against IS.

“We have taken part in at least half of the operations,” a senior Turkish official told Reuters. “Apart from that, Turkey takes part in identifying targets and providing logistics and bases. We are in close cooperation with the US.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin branded Turkey’s shoot-down a war crime on Thursday and said Turkey would face further sanctions. Moscow has already banned some Turkish food imports as part of a wider package of retaliatory sanctions.

The US hopes that tensions between Moscow and Ankara will ease quickly, allowing Turkey to take a more prominent role inside the US-led coalition’s air campaign, the first official said.

US officials stressed that overall coalition air operations had been unaffected by the tensions between Turkey and Russia.

There is debate within the Obama administration on how hard to push Turkey. US officials broadly acknowledge its support has been vital to the US-led campaign in Syria, allowing the coalition to stage strike missions out of a Turkish airbase.