ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey’s parliament gave the government new powers Thursday to launch military incursions into Syria and Iraq, and to allow foreign forces to use its territory for possible operations against the Islamic State group.
The move opens the way for Turkey, a NATO member with a large and modern military, to play a more robust role in the U.S-led coalition against the Sunni militants. However, Turkey has yet to define what that role might be.
The vote came as the extremists pressed their offensive against a beleaguered Kurdish town along Syria’s border with Turkey. The assault, which has forced some 160,000 Syrians to flee across the frontier in recent days, left the Kurdish militiamen scrambling to repel the militants’ advance into the outskirts of Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab.
The assault came despite renewed U.S.-led airstrikes in the area overnight. The United States has been bombing the Islamic State group across Syria since last week and in neighboring Iraq since early August.
Turkey’s parliament had previously approved operations into Iraq and Syria to attack Kurdish separatists or to thwart threats from the Syrian regime. Thursday’s motion, which passed 298-98, expands those powers to address threats from the Islamic State militants who control a large cross-border swath of Iraq and Syria, in some cases right up to the Turkish border.
Asked what measures Turkey would take after the motion was approved, Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz said: “Don’t expect any immediate steps.”
“The motion prepares the legal ground for possible interventions, but it is too early to say what those interventions will be,” said Dogu Ergil, a professor of political science and a columnist for Today’s Zaman newspaper.
The motion could allow Iraqi Kurdish fighters to use Turkey’s territory to safely cross into Syria to help Syrian Kurdish forces there, or permit the deployment of coalition forces’ drones, Ergil said.
Turkey could also allow its air base in Incirlik, some 160 kilometers (100 miles) from the Syrian border to be used by allied planes or for logistics.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki welcomed the Turkish move and said the U.S. was looking forward to strengthening cooperation between Turkey and the rest of the global coalition seeking to defeat the Islamic State group. She declined to say what specific assistance Turkey might be asked to contribute, saying officials were “now discussing what particular role they may play.”
The U.S. envoy tasked with coordinating the global coalition, retired Marine Gen. John Allen, was to meet with officials in Turkey over the next week, Psaki said.
Two opposition parties voted against the motion, which comes less than a year before parliamentary elections — a time when the Turkish government is unlikely to take bold military action — and provoked a lively debate among lawmakers.
“Will you be sending the (ground) troops which Obama did not want to send?” opposition legislator Osman Koruturk asked during the debate.
In Syria, Ismet Sheikh Hasan, a senior fighter, said the Kurdish forces were preparing for urban clashes in Kobani in a desperate attempt to repel the militants.
“We are preparing ourselves for street battles,” Hasan said. “They still haven’t entered Kobani, but we are preparing ourselves.”
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group tracking the Syrian conflict, reported that Islamic State fighters were, in some cases, just hundreds of yards from Kobani on its eastern and southeastern side. The militants were about a mile away on the southern side of town.