US, Turkey Discussing 'Safe Zone' in Northern Syria

Syrian Kurd Kiymet Ergun, 56, gestures as she celebrates in Mursitpinar on the outskirts of Suruc, at the Turkey-Syria border, Monday, Oct. 13, 2014. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

As part of an agreement to allow the U.S. and its coalition partners the use of Turkish air bases to launch strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria, the U.S. and Turkey are discussing the creation of a safe zone along part of the border that would be off-limits to Assad regime aircraft, officials in both countries told The Wall Street Journal.

In contrast to a formal no-fly zone, the narrower safe zone along the border under discussion wouldn't require any strikes to take out Syrian air defenses. Instead, the U.S. and its coalition partners could send a quiet warning to the Assad regime to stay away from the zone or risk retaliation, the Journal reported. The zone would would provide sanctuary to Western-backed opposition forces and refugees.

U.S. and coalition aircraft would use Incirlik and other Turkish air bases to patrol the zone, ensuring that rebels crossing the border from Turkey don't come under attack there, officials told the Journal. So far, Turkey has only allowed the U.S. military to fly unmanned surveillance flights out of Incirlik.

Turkey had proposed a far more extensive no-fly zone across one-third of northern Syria, the Journal reported. That idea was, however, a nonstarter for the Obama administration, which told Ankara that something so invasive would constitute an act of war against the Assad regime.

The U.S. doesn't foresee any air exclusionary zone as far south as the city of Aleppo, a stronghold of the opposition Free Syrian Army, at least initially. Turkish officials had proposed a large no-fly zone, stretching from the Iraqi border to northern Latakia on the Mediterranean coast.

For the U.S., the risk in creating even a small de facto no-fly zone would be the possibility of a challenge by the Assad regime. The U.S. passed messages to the Assad regime not to contest coalition aircraft at the start of the airstrikes in Syria in September, the Journal noted. So far, the regime hasn't challenged U.S. aircraft, according to U.S. officials.

If Obama approves the plan being negotiated by John Allen, the retired Marine general who is the administration's lead coordinator for the international coalition against the Islamic State, it would mark a reversal from his earlier policy, noted the Bloomberg news agency.

Since 2012, the White House has resisted calls from both parties in Congress to establish such protected areas in Syria, in part because it would be a significant strain on the U.S. Air Force and put fliers in danger. But the White House has also been wary that a no-fly zone could drag the U.S. into a shooting war with the Syrian regime at the very moment it is trying to wage a war against the Islamic State and al-Qaida, two groups that have also fought the regime.

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