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U.S. Shoots Down Idea of Syria Safe Zone

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Days after the U.S. and Turkey announced a breakthrough deal to fight together against the Islamic State, U.S. officials are insisting that -- contrary to reports -- there are definitely no U.S. plans for a "safe zone" inside Syria. In fact, there really is no "zone," and there is no plan to keep the area "safe."

This confusion is a microcosm of the disorganized U.S. approach to the Islamic State threat since last summer. Each incremental escalation into which the U.S. gets dragged in Syria seems poorly thought out and even more poorly explained. Until the Barack Obama administration can reconcile the different objectives among the members of its anti-Islamic-State coalition, the various partners will continue to work at cross-purposes. In this case, for the U.S., the Islamic State is the one and only priority; for Turkey, the imperative is protecting civilians from Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime and eventually forcing its exit.

For the last week, various U.S. and Turkish officials have been contradicting each other in public and private over whether or not the White House agreed to a safe zone inside Syria, something it has long resisted. Major U.S. newspapers even published makeshift maps showing what the anti-Islamic-State safe zone would cover. But in a conference call with reporters Tuesday, three senior administration officials made it clear that there are no U.S. plans for a safe zone, a no-fly zone, an air-exclusionary zone, a humanitarian buffer zone or any other protected zone of any kind.

"We're not out there staking out zones and doing some things that I know have been discussed in years past -- no-fly zones, safe zones. What we're trying to do is clear ISIL," a senior administration official said. "I think it's important not to confuse that with staking out these zones that you can identify with road signs and on big maps, and that's just not what's happening."

On Monday, a White House official told an audience in a closed-door meeting at the Middle East Institute in Washington the same thing about there being no safe zone inside Syria, according to two people who were inside the meeting. The Obama administration is sending a delegation back to Turkey next week to work on exactly what the new cooperation along the northern Syria border will look like, the official said.

The three senior administration officials talking to reporters Tuesday insisted that the operation will be limited to clearing Islamic State forces from a 68-mile stretch of the Turkey-Syria border. But there's no talk of protecting civilians, holding population areas, or making sure the area isn't attacked by Assad's air force, which continues to drop crude "barrel bombs" on civilian areas all over Northern Syria.

"What we're doing is we're going after ISIL wherever we find them up there in the north," one official said. “And now we have a kind of final stretch of border to work on that we're going to work cooperatively with the Turks on that. In terms of what exactly it looks like and how it will look and what the modalities are, that's what we have to work out with them.”

All this confusion started on July 23, when John Allen, the retired U.S. general in charge of the anti-jihadist effort, denied that an "air exclusion zone" inside Syria was even "part of the conversation" he conducted with the Turks that resulted in the new agreement, which will allow American planes to use Turkey's Incirlik Air Base to strike targets in Syria and Iraq. (Allen had been trying to negotiate a deal that would have included such a zone inside Syria since last year, but has repeatedly been stymied by the White House, which hates the idea.)

Yet two days later, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said this at a news conference: "When areas in northern Syria are cleared of the (ISIL) threat, the safe zones will be formed naturally. We have always defended safe zones and no-fly zones in Syria. People who have been displaced can be placed in those safe zones."

In the days that followed, articles in the New York TimesWashington Post and elsewhere stated that the U.S. and Turkey had agreed to work on a safe zone inside Syria. Some reports included maps that showed the approximate reach of the area, where Syrian civilians would presumably be protected from Assad's forces. It took until Tuesday for the Obama administration to quash any notion to that effect.

The key difference between what the Obama administration is saying today versus the news reports earlier this week is not whether there is an area that the U.S. and Turkey will work to clear of Islamic State fighters. The dispute is whether that area will be "safe," especially from air attacks. The White House is wary of any plan that could put it in military conflict with the Assad regime, and has made no decision to protect opposition forces or civilians from its air assaults.

Former officials and Mideast experts noted this week that protecting the area from Assad's bombs was key to whether or not a safe zone would actually work. Frederic Hof, a former State Department Syria official, pointed out some of the holes in the still-murky U.S.-Turkey plan. "A marginal ground combat component is one problem faced by the coalition. Another is Assad regime aerial operations. They are major arrows in the quiver of ISIL," wrote Hof. "So although recent developments are positive, they can be potentially decisive only to the extent they transcend what's being reported: specifically in the category of protecting civilians."

In addition to tamping speculation about safe zones, the three senior administration officials said Tuesday that no U.S. or Turkish troops would be used to clear the border area of jihadists. "Moderate opposition forces" would do the job. They did not specify which opposition forces would be used, only that they would have to be agreed on by both Washington and Ankara.

That eliminates the possibility of using Kurdish forces, the most effective anti-Islamic-State troops in the region, because the Turks would veto the idea. For several days Turkey has been bombing forces of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which it considers a terrorist group. There were some allegations that it struck Syrian Kurdish forces as well. Administration officials defended the bombings on Tuesday, saying that the PKK started the latest round of violence.

As for the Free Syrian Army, the U.S. largely abandoned most of its brigades in northern Syria late last year, after they suffered heavy losses to other rebel groups, including the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front. The remaining forces are busy fighting for their lives in and around Aleppo. It's unlikely that they would be able to hold the Turkish border without a lot more assistance.

Another group that won't be able to fill is void are the recruits from the Pentagon's $500 million "train and equip" program. After huge delays caused by vetting problems and organizational incompetence, the program has produced only 60 trained fighters. They have been embedded with Free Syrian Army groups far from the Turkish border.

The U.S. and Turkey still haven't answered the key questions about their new anti-jihadist area, including how big it will be, who will man it, or what will happen if Assad's forces attack. Officials say the White House is trying to figure all of that now. If the past is any guide, the U.S. will likely continue its singular focus on defeating the Islamic State and decline to confront Assad or protect civilians. The Turks know that -- so, unfortunately, should those who have spent the last few days talking about "safe zones" inside Syria.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net