Turkey says it has secured an agreement with the Obama administration to jointly secure a zone in a small part of northern Syria. But while U.S. officials are confirming the outlines of the deal, discrepancies in how Washington and Ankara view the buffer suggests the accord is not complete.
The zone's proposed area would extend along a 68-mile stretch of the Turkish border and reach 40 miles into Syrian territory, west of the Euphrates River, and into the province of Aleppo, say Turkish officials. The area is now controlled by the Islamic State group (IS), but lies between two areas of Syria currently held by Kurdish separatist militias linked to Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
According to both American and Turkish officials, coalition airstrikes will aim to drive Islamic extremists out of the zone, allowing the targeted area to come under the sway of rebel groups seeking to topple President Bashar al-Assad.
But aside from that objective — to rid the buffer of the Islamic State group — it isn’t clear that the Obama administration and the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are speaking from the same page, some analysts say.
In a lengthy dinner interview Sunday with editors of the Turkish Hurriyet newspaper, Turkey’s Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, appeared to acknowledge that, by touching on "discrepancies" and common ground between Washington and Ankara. He implied that U.S. and Turkish warplanes will not only be seeking to protect rebel groups from Islamic State extremists but also from the Assad regime.
“We had important points in common as well, like being against all kinds of terrorism and the need of Assad leaving power for a better Syria.” He added: “The agreement we reached [with the Americans] has covered our concerns and expectations up to a certain level. I cannot get into details, but, for example, an important point was the air cover for the Free Syrian Army [FSA] and other moderate elements.”
US: 'IS-free zone'
U.S. officials briefing reporters in Washington stepped back from describing the proposed boundaries as a “safe zone,” saying there isn’t a specific measurement for the targeted area. “The goal is to establish an ISIL-free zone and ensure greater security and stability along Turkey’s border with Syria,” a U.S. official told the Agence France-Press, using common acronym to refer to the Islamic State group, also known as Daesh.
Another senior U.S. official said in a distributed press statement: “Any joint military efforts” with Turkey “will not include the imposition of a no-fly zone.”
“Details remain to be worked out," the statement continued. "What we are talking about with Turkey is cooperating to support partners on the ground in northern Syria who are countering ISIL.”
The Obama administration has long resisted calls to establish a safe zone in northern Syria, one protected by U.S. and coalition air power. U.S. officials have feared being drawn further into the four-year-long Syrian civil war.
But the zone being talked about by the Turks not only includes towns of strategic and symbolic importance for the Islamic State group, but also towns such as al-Bab, which has been targeted by Syrian helicopters and warplanes, risking clashes with the Syrian government.
Turkey: Zone to shelter refugees
Turkish officials have been drawing a more expansive picture for what they want to achieve in the targeted area, with some seeing it as a zone that could shelter Syrian refugees, reducing — and reversing — the influx into Turkey.
Speaking to reporters in Ankara, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said: “People who have been displaced can be placed in those safe areas.”
In his remarks to editors, Prime Minister Davutoglu said in the past Turkey had refused to join U.S.-led coalition air operations against IS fighters because Ankara wanted the coalition to target Assad as much as the Islamic extremists, and also wanted a no-fly zone imposed over northern Syria “for the needs of Turkey to counter its refugee problem.”
Davutoglu skirted questions about whether those conditions had been met now by Washington. Turkish officials and Syrian rebel leaders say there are still more details to be worked out in the agreement. Although the proposed plan falls short of the kind of no-fly and safe zone Ankara officials would like to see right now, it will inexorably start moving that way to counter unfolding challenges and threats.
“I can’t see how the Americans will be able to stand by and do nothing if Assad’s warplanes strike at us in the zone,” one rebel leader told VOA.
As details are finalized, the plan faces some tricky challenges, say some analysts. Among them are potential differences between Washington and Ankara over which rebel militias should be backed in the targeted zone, and what the fallout will be on Syrian Kurds.
Kurdish leaders fear the zone could be used by Sunni Arab rebel groups to strike them.