After announcing that U.S. planes would use bases in Turkey to attack Islamic State, the two countries have now proposed a stronger joint campaign in Syria.
Reports emerged Sunday that unprecedented U.S.-Turkish cooperation in striking ISIS sites just across the border in Syria would attempt to create what is variously being described as a “safe zone,” “buffer zone” or “ISIS-free zone.” If the plan succeeds, American-backed forces, described as “moderate,” would take over a border zone which has become a dangerous pipeline for jihadi fighters in Syria. (RELATED: ISIS’ Worst Nightmare Just Got In The War)
The recent backlash against Islamic State came just days after a suicide bomb killed 32 people in a Turkish town near the border. Last weekend’s airstrikes targeted Islamic State assets as well as those belonging to the YPG, a Kurdish group whose allies are among Turkey’s bitterest enemies.
Turkey remains deeply suspicious of Kurds, whose brethren inside Turkey have long agitated (sometimes with violence) for greater autonomy from the government — or even independence. The PKK, a paramilitary organization based in eastern Turkey, has already faced a crackdown by the central government. Turkey And yet, in northern Syria as well as Iraq, Kurdish militias known as peshmerga are among the strongest forces pushing back against Islamic State. (RELATED: Syria’s Anti-ISIS Forces REALLY Can’t Take Constructive Criticism)
So Turkey finds itself in a position familiar to the U.S. in recent years, making uncomfortable tradeoffs between indirectly supporting either one enemy or another. In recent days, Turkey seems to be trying to have it both ways, striking both ISIS and its Kurdish foes at once.
In the four-year Syrian civil war, Turkey’s main objective has been to oust President Bashar Assad, whom it regards as a dangerous pawn of Iran and a threat to the security of most Syrians. However, increasing attacks within Turkey by ISIS and other Syrian Islamist factions have heightened alarm in the country — and given it an opportunity to strike down Kurdish forces as well.
Turkey has also advocated a no-fly zone in Syria’s north since the civil war’s early days. A no-fly zone is unlikely, since it would require the farfetched step of approval by the U.N. Security Council. But the new announcement gives both the U.S. and Turkey a greater stake in the war.
In Turkey’s view, a guaranteed safe zone in northern Syria could become a safe haven for the millions of Syrians whom the conflict has displaced. Turkey has shouldered the greatest burden of Syrian refugees, but otherwise has attracted criticism for taking a passive attitude toward the raging war. (RELATED: Is Turkey The Key To Finally Beating ISIS In Iraq?)
And for the U.S., which remains deeply cautious about escalating its own military firepower in Syria, the deal with Turkey provides a base for focused attacks against ISIS in northern Syria. The challenge ahead is to keep America’s new Turkish partners from dictating the terms of the fight, crippling Kurdish anti-ISIS forces for the sake of its own priorities.
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