The White House on Thursday declined to confirm reports that the U.S. and Turkey have reached a deal allowing the Pentagon to launch airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria from a major U.S. base inside Turkey, but did hint that those reports were accurate.
Presidential press secretary Josh Earnest said President Obama and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke Wednesday night and agreed to "deepen our cooperation in the fight" against the Islamic State.
"There are a few things I can say about this," Earnest told reporters. "The president did, obviously, convene a telephone call [with Erdogan]. In that call, the two leaders discussed efforts to deepen our cooperation in the fight against ISIL. And when I say our cooperation, I mean the cooperation that exists between Turkey and the United States, and the other 60 or so countries that are part of the counter-ISIL coalition."
The Wall Street Journal Thursday reported that Turkey has agreed to allow the U.S. to use Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey to send fighter jets and armed drones to attack Islamic State fighters in neighboring Syria.
Until now, the paper reported, Turkey has only allowed the U.S. to fly unarmed surveillance drones out of Incirlik. The agreement would be a major breakthrough in relations between the two countries. Turkey, a longtime ally of the U.S., famously declined to allow its bases to be used for carrying out the U.S. invasion in Iraq in 2003.
More recently, critics have accused Turkey of failing to crack down hard enough on its borders, which has allowed foreign fighters to flow freely into Syria to join the ranks of the Islamic State.
An expanded use of the base would part of a broader deal between the U.S. and Turkey to deepen their cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State, which is increasingly having a negative impact on Turkey and its citizens, the Journal reported.
Earnest said he wasn't able to talk about Incirlik because of "specific operational security concerns."
"So what we have acknowledged is that our coalition has access to a variety of bases throughout Europe and the Middle East for a variety of missions," he said. Those missions include intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, personal recovery, refueling and carrying out military airstrikes.
"But for operational reasons I can't get into which bases are used for which purpose," he said.
Turkey and Syria share a 560-mile border, and cross border fighting involving Islamic State militants has impacted border towns. On Monday the White House condemned a "heinous" terrorist attack in the Turkish border town of Suruc that left at least 28 dead and wounded 100 others.
Earnest said increased cooperation between the U.S. and Turkey on the Islamic State would focus on "promoting security and stability in Iraq" and "trying to bring about a political settlement inside of Syria."
Earnest also praised Turkey for hosting on the U.S.-led training programs for vetted Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State.
He also gave Turkey credit for taking "some important steps to try to close that border" and said "there may be more things that we can do together to help them stem that flow."