What the U.S. Needs From Turkey in Syria

A warm meal, a cool bed and a place to land our fighter jets.

Photographer: Maj. Jefferson S. Heiland/U.S. Air Force via Getty Images

Should the U.S. and Turkey establish a no-fly zone in Syria? The instinctive humanitarian answer is of course they should. With more than 200,000 people dead and half the population displaced by war, the situation cries out for intervention.

Then comes the more considered hard-headed response: Of course they shouldn’t. Not least because until now the U.S.'s goals in Syria haven't been the same as Turkey's, and to embark on a joint military campaign with opposing ideas of its purpose is to invite disaster.

This ambivalence is as unsatisfying as it is unavoidable: Effectively if not officially, the U.S. is on both sides of Syria's civil war. That may make the case for an even wider no-fly zone all the stronger -- but it also makes it more important that the U.S. and Turkey resolve their differences before they impose it.

Syria's Civil War

Serious discussions about a no-fly zone started last month, but Turkey's leaders came up with the buffer-zone idea in 2011. It was part of a wider plan to topple Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and included forming a government in exile, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. This government would move to Syria's biggest city, Aleppo, just 60 miles from the Turkish border, when the buffer zone was set up. Once Assad was defeated, Syria would get a Sunni, Islamist, Turkey-friendly regime.

None of this happened, of course. Assad remains in power and his forces may soon recapture Aleppo, most of which is currently in the hands of rebel fighters. So when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan refloated the safe-zone idea as the price for joining the U.S.-led fight against the jihadist group Islamic State, his blueprint covered about a third of the country -- including Aleppo.

And therein lies the problem. To change the course of the war and protect Aleppo, the buffer zone needs to be big and engage Assad's troops and air defenses. The U.S., though, doesn't want to join the fight against Assad: Iran and Russia would respond, within Syria and beyond, and the U.S. would be left owning the post-war mess. After Iraq, Americans probably know better than Turks just how bad that can be.

So now discussions appear to have turned to a minimalist buffer zone, in areas where U.S. aircraft already control the skies and are established on the ground by Turkish special forces. That might be possible without fighting Assad. It wouldn't save Aleppo, but it might help in other ways. Turkey would allow the U.S. to start using its airbase at Incirlik; refugees stuck on the Syrian side of the Turkish border could be safely taken care of; and moderate Syrian rebels might feel better protected from Assad and more willing to act as foot soldiers against Islamic State.

The U.S. shouldn't, however, even consider getting involved until Turkey changes its plans for Syria. Erdogan still says he wants Assad defeated militarily, whereas the U.S. wants to engineer a political settlement. It isn't enough for Turkey to agree to a political track in private. Erdogan needs to say out loud that Assad can be part of a negotiation, if not a future government. Turkey also needs to stop working with radical rebel groups rejected by the U.S. and its Arab allies.

These kinds of differences matter, and they need to be resolved. Both the U.S. and Turkey want a more stable and peaceful Syria without Assad as its leader. But if Turkey relegates this goal to fulfill Erdogan's neo-Ottoman dreams, a safe zone could quickly become a staging ground for a wider war. Until the U.S. is satisfied that this won't happen, the answer to the predicate question -- should they cooperate to establish a no-fly zone? -- should wait.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.