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Turkey Opens Airspace For U.S. Operations Against Islamic State

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Turkey has ramped up its role in the fight against ISIS in neighboring Syria. Its warplanes have struck at ISIS targets, and it has now made its air bases open to more U.S. operations against ISIS. The Turks have also launched a domestic crackdown on supporters of armed militant groups. These developments follow a week marked by violence, protests and an exchange of fire across the border. Soner Cagaptay directs Turkish research at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Good to see you again.

SONER CAGAPTAY: Good to be here.

SIEGEL: And first, how big a shift in Turkey's policy on the war next door in Syria do these airstrikes represent?

CAGAPTAY: Pretty significant - Turkey's a NATO ally. It's the only NATO ally that borders both Iraq and Syria, countries where ISIS has territory. And thus far, Turkey was absent from the war against ISIS, especially in Syria. And so its participation in the war now by opening up its air bases to U.S. forces is a big step. If the U.S. wants it, this could be a game-changer in the war against ISIS now that it has Air Force bases and other assets right near ISIS territory.

SIEGEL: And the domestic arrests - the crackdown within Turkey.

CAGAPTAY: That's perhaps even more significant because we have known for a while now Turkey faces an ISIS threat, domestically as well as people who crisscross through that country into Syria, though the Turkish government was, so far, reticent in cracking down on ISIS. And I think that's because they were aware that they had a vulnerability. So despite knowing that they have vulnerability, they're cracking down, which is probably because they want to nip this problem in the bud now. So I think we will see, unfortunately, ISIS retaliation against what Turkey's doing, both in terms of its cooperation with the U.S. and cracking down on ISIS cells inside the country.

SIEGEL: Now, the most recent sequence of events that led to this involved a suicide bombing earlier this week at a youth rally - Turkish Kurds in a town right near the Syrian border. Take us through what happened this week that led to this change.

CAGAPTAY: That was probably the straw that broke the camel's back, in the sense that, thus far, Turkey had been in a cold war with ISIS, meaning it did not like ISIS, but it also avoided fighting it to not incur the group's wrath, and that ended with a suicide bombing. ISIS targeted a Kurdish town inside Turkey on the border with Syria, killed 31 activists. And I think this was a humiliation to the Turkish government, that it was now targeted by this group, which it had kind of ignored for so long. But I think there's a second element of this attack in the sense that ISIS wants to bring the problems in Syria and the war in Syria into Turkey. In Syria, ISIS is fighting the Kurds. In Turkey, ISIS attacked a town with Kurds. So it wants to create a dynamic there also. And third, with the attack, it wanted to signal to the Turkish government - ISIS - that it knows that Ankara is getting ready to cooperate with Washington to work against ISIS. So this was, in my view, a preemptive strike.

SIEGEL: Put us in the mindset of Turkey's leaders here. They've always seemed wary about Kurdish nationalist sentiment getting too strong. In recent years, they seem to worry less about who was going to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, so long as he was ousted. Are they now seeing things differently in the region?

CAGAPTAY: I think the leadership in Turkey still has top-one priority in Syria, which is ousting Assad. There is now a new priority, which is degrading and defeating ISIS. And they have a third priority, which is preventing the establishment of an independent Kurdish state. They can't get all of it. They will have to prioritize at one stage, simply because Turkey cannot afford to have three enemies in Syria, which will be ISIS, Kurds and Assad. And I think, right now, it's pretty obvious from the United States that the U.S. wants Turkey to prioritize ISIS. And Turkey now sees ISIS as a threat. This group is an anathema to Turkey. It is everything that Turkey is not. Turkey's secular way of life, Democratic governance, its connections to the West, membership to NATO - all of that makes Turkey an anathema to ISIS. And this war was bound to happen. The question was not if, it was when. So it is now starting a Turkey-ISIS war.

SIEGEL: Soner Cagaptay of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the author of "The Rise Of Turkey: The Twenty-First Century's First Muslim Power," thanks for talking with us.

CAGAPTAY: Pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.