BAGHDAD — Turkey and the United States have agreed in general terms on a plan that envisions American warplanes, Syrian insurgents and Turkish forces working together to sweep Islamic State militants from a 60-mile-long strip of northern Syria along the Turkish border, American and Turkish officials say.
The plan would create what officials from both countries are calling an Islamic State-free zone controlled by relatively moderate Syrian insurgents, which the Turks say could also be a “safe zone” for displaced Syrians.
While many details have yet to be determined, including how deep the strip would extend into Syria, the plan would significantly intensify American and Turkish military action against Islamic State militants in the country, as well as the United States’ coordination with Syrian insurgents on the ground. The plan was described in recent days by four senior American officials, who were briefed on the talks and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss operational planning.
“Details remain to be worked out, but what we are talking about with Turkey is cooperating to support partners on the ground in northern Syria who are countering ISIL,” a senior Obama administration official said, using another term for the Islamic State. “The goal is to establish an ISIL-free zone and ensure greater security and stability along Turkey’s border with Syria.”
Graphic | Turkey Agrees to More Aggressively Counter ISIS Along Its Border A visual guide to the rise of the Islamic State.
But the plan faces the same challenges that have long plagued American policy in Syria. While the United States is focused on the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, both the Turks and the Syrian insurgents see defeating President Bashar al-Assad of Syria as their first priority, even though Turkey has escalated its efforts against the Islamic State since the group was said to have carried out its first deadly bombing on Turkish soil last week.
Whatever the goal, the plan will put American and allied warplanes closer than ever to areas that Syrian aircraft regularly bomb, raising the question of what they will do if Syrian warplanes attack their partners on the ground.
And with only 60 Syrian insurgents having been formally vetted and trained by the United States under a Pentagon program, questions also remain about which Syrian insurgents and how many will be involved in the new operation. A larger number of rebels that American officials deem relatively moderate have been trained in a covert C.I.A. program, but on the battlefield they are often enmeshed or working in concert with more hard-line Islamist insurgents.
In another complication, gains for such insurgents would come at the expense of Syrian Kurdish militias that are already fighting the Islamic State farther east with American air support and that have been eyeing the same territory.
Graphic | How ISIS Expands The Islamic State aims to build a broad colonial empire across many countries.
Turkish officials and Syrian opposition leaders are describing the agreement as something just short of a prize they have long sought as a tool against Mr. Assad: a no-fly zone in Syria near the Turkish border. They want such a zone in order to curb devastating Syrian government airstrikes on opposition areas, to allow refugees in Turkey to go home and to insulate Turkey from the war, and they call the new plan a “safe zone” that could achieve some of those goals.
But American officials say that this plan is not directed against Mr. Assad. They also say that while a de facto safe zone could indeed be a byproduct of the plan, a formal no-fly zone is not part of the deal. They said it was not included in the surprise agreement reached last week to let American warplanes take off from Turkish air bases to attack Islamic State fighters in Syria, even though Turkey had long said it would give that permission only in exchange for a no-fly zone.
Instead, United States officials said Turks and Americans were working toward an agreement on the details of an operation to clear Islamic State militants from a heavily contested area roughly between the eastern outskirts of the city of Aleppo and the Euphrates River.
That is an ambitious military goal, because it appears to include areas of great strategic and symbolic importance to the Islamic State, and it could encompass areas that Syrian helicopters regularly bomb. If the zone goes 25 miles deep into Syria, as Turkish news outlets have reported, it could encompass the town of Dabiq, a significant place in the group’s apocalyptic theology, and Manbij, another stronghold. It could also include the Islamic State-held town of Al Bab, where barrel bombs dropped by Syrian aircraft have killed scores, including civilians, in recent weeks.
American officials emphasized that the depth of the buffer zone to be established was one of the important operational details that had yet to be decided. But one senior official said, “You can be assured many of the principal population centers will be covered.”
The plan does not envision Turkish ground troops entering Syria, although long-range artillery could be used across the border. Turkish ground forces would work on their side of the border to stem the Islamic State’s ability to infiltrate foreign fighters and supplies into Syria.
Turkey, a NATO member, has requested a meeting of the alliance on Tuesday about its fight against the Islamic State and Kurdish militants. NATO officials said Turkey had not requested major military support from the alliance. A number of members are already a part of the American-led coalition fighting the Islamic State.
Inside Syria, the plan calls for relatively moderate Syrian insurgents to take the territory, with the help of American and possibly Turkish air support.
That would entail a far higher degree of coordination with Syrian insurgents than the United States has yet undertaken. American officials said they would need to arrange the same kind of system for calling in airstrikes that American Special Operations forces have worked out successfully with Kurdish fighters to the east in Syria.
Insurgents, as well as their supporters in the Syrian opposition and the Turkish government, are already envisioning the plan as a step toward establishing an area where alternative governance could be set up without fear of attack by Islamic State or government forces.
Once the plan is put in place, “safe zones will be formed naturally,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said at a recent news conference, adding that displaced Syrians could return there.
American officials in recent months have argued to Turkish counterparts that a formal no-fly zone is not necessary, noting that during hundreds of American-led strike missions against Islamic State in Syria, forces loyal to Mr. Assad have steered clear of areas under concerted allied attack.
But until now, those missions been mostly farther east, in areas that are not seen as priorities for Mr. Assad, and where there are few non-Islamic State insurgents to benefit, except for Kurdish militias that the government views as less of a threat.
By contrast, the new plan directly benefits Syrian Arab insurgents. Islamic State attacks on them east of Aleppo have complicated their efforts to take the half of that city, Syria’s largest, that remains in government hands.
“Any weakening of ISIS will be a privilege for us on the battlefield,” Ahmad Qara Ali, a spokesman for Ahrar al-Sham, an insurgent group that often allies with the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate. “As for our role, we are already in an open battle against I.S.”
Such Syrian Arab insurgents would gain at the expense of the People’s Protection Units, a Kurdish militia known by the initials Y.P.G. that is seeking to take the same territory from the east. While the United States views the group as one of its best partners on the ground, Turkey sees it as a threat; it is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a militant group whose longstanding conflict with Turkey has flared anew in recent days.
The area has become more crucial to the Islamic State since the Kurds recently drove the group from a border crossing farther east at Tal Abyad, denying it supply routes and revenues. The operation seeks to stop the Islamic State from establishing new routes anywhere between the Kilis border crossing and Jarabulus on the Euphrates.
Even with the new American access to at least two Turkish bases, drastically shortening the time and distance for American jets and armed drones to strike Islamic State targets, challenges to this border strategy still remain, American officials acknowledged.
American officials said they know much more about recruiting, vetting and training Syrian forces than they did months ago, but they conceded that most Syrians are motivated mainly to fight Mr. Assad’s forces, not the Islamic State.
Gen. John R. Allen, a retired Marine officer and the diplomatic envoy coordinating the coalition against the Islamic State, alluded in very general terms to the emerging arrangement in public remarks at the Aspen Security Forum on Thursday.
“Most of the Turkish border, two-thirds of it or so, is back in the hands of what I would call friendlies,” General Allen said. “There is a portion that remains to be taken, but it will be taken. And as we continue to close those aspects of the Turkish border, then we can have effects.”
Anne Barnard reported from Baghdad; Michael R. Gordon from Washington; and Eric Schmitt from Aspen, Colo. Ceylan Yeginsu and Karam Shoumali contributed reporting from Istanbul.
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(via NY Times)