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Three weeks ago, the countries announced a breakthrough agreement to allow the U.S. to use bases in Turkey to launch airstrikes against Islamic State, and the Ankara government said it would join in the bombings. On Wednesday, the Pentagon said U.S. jets now based at Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey had hit their first targets in Syria, which American officials cheered as a significant step forward.
The use of the base has strategic value for the U.S., making it easier to hit Islamic State targets just across the border in northern Syria. But some U.S. officials suspect Turkey is using its recent agreement with the U.S. to fight Islamic State as cover for a new offensive against Kurdish separatist group PKK.
A senior U.S. official said Turkey gave American officials assurances last week that it planned to wrap up attacks on the Kurds in short order, but it has kept up the bombardments focused on the group’s bases in northern Iraq near the Turkish border.
“It’s clear that ISIL was a hook,” said a senior U.S. military official, referring to Islamic State. “Turkey wanted to move against the PKK, but it needed a hook.”
The PKK is branded a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Turkey. But its affiliate in Syria has proved an effective ally to the U.S. by battling Islamic State on the ground.
American officials said it could still take time before Turkey joins the fight against Islamic State. Turkish and U.S. officials explained the delay by saying their countries were still working out the details of joint air operations. Until those details can be finalized, the U.S. military has asked Turkey not to carry out any strikes against Islamic State, Pentagon officials said.
Gen. John Allen, President Barack Obama’s special envoy for the coalition against Islamic State, called Turkey a vital coalition partner and said the two countries have moved very quickly to step up their coordinated military campaign.
“Where we are today in our cooperation to counter ISIL is the result of nearly 10 months of sustained and positive engagement with a valued friend and NATO ally,” he said. “What often gets lost in discussions of U.S.-Turkey cooperation against ISIL is how much we’ve achieved together in a relatively short period of time.”
The U.S. had long been prodding Turkey to take a more substantive role in the fight against Islamic State, which uses the porous Turkey-Syria border to bring in fighters, weapons and funding for their expanding global operations.
Turkish jets hit Islamic State targets on the day the agreement with the U.S. was announced—hours after the jihadists in Syria killed a Turkish soldier in a cross-border shootout. Turkey conducted the first attack based on national intelligence sources and didn’t coordinate with the U.S. and other coalition allies beyond informing them of the strikes, a Turkish official said.
But there have been no Turkish strikes on the group since then, American officials said. This is generating unease among U.S. military officials who want to see Turkey follow through on its pledge to join the air campaign.
“There are still question marks out there,” one senior defense official said of Turkey’s commitment to fighting Islamic State. “Our folks are very eager to put it to the test.”
Turkey gave the U.S. little advance warning of its plans to strike the PKK.
Since then, the U.S. has been able to do little to contain Turkish airstrikes. The U.S. military has asked Turkey not to strike certain areas of Iraq, but little more, Pentagon officials said.
“The PKK is a bigger threat to us, as it is active within the country,” a second Turkish official said. “They stage attacks on our security forces on a daily basis, in many cities. ISIS is more active in Syria, and is therefore less urgent now.”
U.S. military officials said the two countries are working on the details needed to integrate Turkish fighters into the international coalition to make sure the strikes in Iraq and Syria are coordinated and effective.
“That is in the works, but it is a little bit down the road,” said one senior U.S. defense official.
Meanwhile, Turkish planes are unilaterally hitting PKK bases near the border with Turkey. They have also conducted a lesser number of strikes on the group in southeastern Turkey, where the country’s Kurdish population is concentrated.
Three Turks were killed on Tuesday when Kurdish fighters attacked a military outpost in southeastern Turkey, the Turkish military said.
Turkey has taken steps to crack down on Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Turkish officials have arrested scores of suspected militants trying to cross the Turkey-Syria border, the official said.
“This is not to say we don’t do anything against the ISIS,” he said. “Only this week, 23 foreigners suspected of trying to join ISIS in Syria were caught” near the border.
—Adam Entous in Washington contributed to this article.