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Alex Rowell

An ‘ISIS-free zone’ in northern Syria?

Despite conflicting reports, it appears Ankara and the US have agreed to dislodge Islamic State militants from their last holdout on the Turkish-Syrian border

The approximate territory of the proposed ‘ISIS-free zone,’ according to various reports, showing also site of 24 July air strike against ISIS in Hawar. (NOW)

With the dense fog of misinformation, rumor, and contradictory government statements that so often cloud the news cycle where foreign military intervention in Syria is concerned, it’s perhaps no surprise that firm details about a reported joint US-Turkish plan to clear a sizeable chunk of Syria’s northern border zone of ISIS militants have proved elusive.

 

On the one hand, press outlets including AP, the New York Times, and the Washington Post appeared to corroborate reports in the Turkish press late last week that an area approximately 100km wide by 40-60km deep, encompassing the last remaining strip of the Turkish-Syrian border held by ISIS, would be targeted by a combination of US airstrikes and Turkish-backed Syrian rebel groups with a view to driving the jihadists from the area.

 

At the same time, other outlets cited US officials seemingly ruling out the reports forthrightly. In part, the confusion seems to be one of terminology: while Turkish officials have been keen to play the plan up as a “no-fly zone,” where Bashar al-Assad’s fighter jets would be shot down on sight, their American counterparts have been at pains to insist it is not even a “safe zone,” but rather merely an “ISIS-free zone.” This mirrors the two nations’ long-established difference of opinion regarding Syria; with Washington seeking almost exclusively to tackle the jihadists, leaving the Assad regime alone; and Ankara viewing the fight against Assad as at least as important as that against ISIS.

 

Perhaps in the ‘ISIS-free zone’ formula, both feel they have sufficiently satisfied their objectives — the US can further “degrade” ISIS in Syria, while Turkey can offer a de facto safe haven to allied rebel brigades, and possibly refugees too. (It’s been argued that another Turkish motivation is checking the recent advances of its old foes, the Kurds, who, were they able to dislodge ISIS from the same piece of territory, would hold an unprecedented length of the border spanning over 500km from Afrin in the west to Iraq in the east.)

 

Yet even so, analysts told NOW there were fundamental logistical details that could prove tough to resolve, such as which rebels exactly would be brought in to replace ISIS.

 

“There are serious issues […] not the least of which is ensuring only Syrian opposition forces 'moderate' enough for US standards are permitted to enjoy the benefits of any 'ISIL-free' or 'safe' zone,” said Charles Lister, visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. While Washington would categorically reject working with, for example, the Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, Ankara is a principal backer of the Jaysh al-Fatah coalition, of which Nusra is the leading force.

 

Moreover, analysts said without the no-fly component, there would be little to stop Assad’s air force from destroying whatever military infrastructure the newly-arrived rebels may establish in the zone — an outcome that could itself precipitate the return of ISIS to the area once again.

 

“If it happens […] such a plan will be significant [only] if it bans the regime from flying airplanes and dropping barrel bombs,” said Hassan Hassan, associate fellow at Chatham House and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, adding that, “For now, I am not optimistic about it.”

 

Still, Lister told NOW the move was one in a series of recent Turkish steps indicating a will to see substantially more intervention in northern Syria, at the expense of both ISIS and the regime. Another key development came last Thursday with the announcement Ankara had acceded, after months of reluctance, to American requests to use Turkey’s Incirlik air base at Adana, just 150km from the Syrian border, for its anti-ISIS operations. Reports suggested the ‘ISIS-free zone’ was in part Washington’s quo in return for the Incirlik quid.

 

“Despite not being a no-fly zone by any means, the intensified engagement of Turkey in determining military dynamics in northern Aleppo will put another dent in Assad's capacity to claim himself as the lead counter-terrorism practitioner in Syria,” said Lister. “Clearly, the Americans have targeted the Aleppo front as a principal recipient of investment in recent months, so with the additional opening up of Incirlik and the involvement of the Turkish military, the Aleppo theater looks set to get very interesting in the coming weeks and months.”

 

 

 

Timeline of recent events leading up to the ‘ISIL-free zone’ announcement

 

Monday, 20 July: ISIS suicide bomb kills 32 in south Turkish town of Suruç, near Kurdish Kobane in Syria

 

Wednesday, 22 July: Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) claims responsibility for the killing of two Turkish policemen in the southern border town of Ceylanpinar, calling it revenge for the Suruç bombing

 

Thursday, 23 July: Turkey grants the US-led anti-ISIS coalition use of its Incirlik air base in Adana

 

Thursday, 23 July: Firefight between ISIS and Turkish forces on Syrian border, near Kilis, leads to death of Turkish officer

 

Friday, 24 July: Turkey retaliates for Kilis attack with airstrikes on ISIS positions in nearby Syrian village of Hawar (see above map). Turkish official says Ankara has moved from “passive defense” to “active defense” against ISIS

 

Friday, 24 July: Turkey arrests scores of ISIS suspects in Istanbul

 

Friday, 24 July: First (inaccurate) reports of ‘no-fly zone’ agreed with US appear in Turkish press

 

Alex Rowell tweets @disgraceofgod

The approximate territory of the proposed ‘ISIS-free zone,’ according to various reports, showing also site of 24 July air strike against ISIS in Hawar. (NOW)

While Turkish officials have been keen to play the plan up as a 'no-fly zone,' where Bashar al-Assad’s fighter jets would be shot down on sight, their American counterparts have been at pains to insist it is not even a 'safe zone,' but rather merely an 'ISIS-free zone.'"