Even as they step up military cooperation in the battle against the Islamic State, the U.S. and Turkey could agree only in general terms on the most critical issue of all – who will assure security of the territories in northern Syria after they expel the extremists, Turkish officials said Monday.
The official Turkish Anadolu news agency published a map for the region from which the two countries hope to oust the extremist group. It shows a swath of territory some 65 miles in length and up to 25 miles deep into Syria, titled a “potential safe zone” – the place to which displaced Syrians could flee.
But there was no word on which of the many anti-Syrian government militias will take charge of the region, which runs between the towns of Azaz, north of Aleppo, to Jarablus, to its northeast.
A senior Turkish security official said security would be assured by the Free Syrian Army, an umbrella group that has almost no cash, limited other resources and no command and control even over the moderate militias.
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But he did reveal a preliminary answer to the issue of security in the freed territories, saying that Turkey plans to fill the vacuum, using artillery stationed just across the border in Turkey.
“The principle is simple. If there is any attack on civilians between Azaz and Jarablus, we will strike,” said the official, who could not be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media. “Whoever it is, we will not allow civilians to die.” He said the goal was not to abolish Syria’s territorial integrity but to secure the safety of civilians.
Turkish forces might even have to enter Syria to establish security, the official said, but they would quickly exit when security was restored.
Even calling the territory a “potential safe zone” is a subject of dispute. News reports from Washington quoted U.S. officials calling the liberated area an “ISIL-free zone,” using an alternative name for the Islamic State.
What’s unclear is how Turkey will respond should the Assad regime deploy helicopters to drop “barrel bombs” – improvised bombs made out of barrels and full of shrapnel – and if the U.S. will join in any countermoves.
The lack of clarity is nothing new in the Syria conflict. The U.S. and Turkey have had a deep disagreement about the ultimate target of the intervention. Turkey insists that the goal is the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whom it blames for the rise of terror groups in his country. But the U.S. says the only target should be the Islamic State insurgents.
The dispute over aims has made it almost impossible for the U.S. and other allies to recruit young Syrians under the $500 million U.S. “train and equip” program. Hundreds of recruits reportedly walked off when they were asked to commit to fight only the Islamic State and not the Assad regime.
The first graduates of the course in Turkey, about 50 recruits, rolled into Syria two weeks ago in four wheel drive pickup trucks. But they haven’t been heard from since.
The U.S. goal was to train at least 5,000 fighters against the Islamic State this year alone.
With U.S.-trained regular forces unable to fill the security needs even for the small region Turkey seeks to protect, there are few good options.
Moderate Syrian rebel forces that have been armed and supported under a covert U.S. program receive backing through their commanders and do not report to any civilian structure, such as the general staff established by the Syrian opposition.
Then there are the Islamist forces, such as the Nusra Front, the Syrian affiliate of al Qaida, and more moderate Islamist forces such as the Ahrar al Sham.
But the most obvious option is Kurdish forces in the immediate region, which are affiliated with the People’s Protection Units, or YPG force, an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union all view as a terrorist organization.
There are hundreds of trained YPG fighters in an area known as the Afrin, west of Azaz, and they reportedly have been prepared to join in the fight against the Islamic State. But the YPG has its own agenda, and that is to link up Afrin with predominantly Kurdish zones in northeastern Syria – to create some sort of political entity.
Fear of the creation of such an entity on its borders is one of the factors that apparently drove Turkey to join the U.S. in the military strikes against the Islamic State. Turkey says the YPG shares the PKK’s desire to create a major autonomous region carved out of Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran that would be the precursor to a Kurdish state.
After more than 30 years of war in which 40,000 people died, Turkey and the PKK began a cease-fire two years ago and were negotiating a peace agreement. But earlier this month, the PKK announced that the cease-fire was over, and last week it announced that its operatives had killed two Turkish policemen in a town near the border with Syria, alleging they were working with the Islamic State.
At least three other police have been killed in the meantime.
Turkey launched an enormous air operation Saturday against PKK camps in northern Iraq, an operation that has been trimmed back but is continuing.
At the State Department in Washington, spokesman John Kirby struggled to come up with justification for why the United States supports the Turks’ attacks on the PKK because it’s a designated terrorist organization, but doesn’t have much to say about Turkey holding back in what’s considered the far more urgent fight against the Islamic State.
Kirby, at times fumbling for words, said he wouldn’t question Turkish motives and added that Ankara had pledged more anti-Islamic State cooperation. Throughout the briefing, Kirby defended the Turks and bristled when a reporter suggested the Turks were attacking the PKK rather than using the arms against the Islamic State.
“There are some days when our pilots don’t drop all their bombs, either,” Kirby said.
Kirby also was unable to clear up the confusion over conflicting reports of some kind of humanitarian corridor in northern Syria. While he was adamant that a no-fly wasn’t under consideration, Kirby didn’t rule out some other type of safe zone. Kirby said the talks with the Turks are only in the early stages and that there’s no clear picture yet of the military composition of such an area.
Also, Kirby said, the Assad regime doesn’t challenge coalition aircraft in the area and the Islamic State doesn’t fly aircraft, so there’s “in a sense” a de facto no-fly zone already.
McClatchy special correspondent Guvenc reported from Ankara. Hannah Allam contributed from Washington.