On to the slippery slope
Washington has reportedly agreed with Ankara to sweep Islamic State fighters from an important portion of Turkey’s border with Syria, de facto creating a “safe” zone something like 40 miles deep into Syria and extending from Aleppo to the Euphrates river. This move comes on the heels of Turkish agreement to allow the US to use planes based at Incirlik to bomb the Islamic State, whose attacks in recent weeks have reached into Turkey.
Differences in Turkish and American objectives remain. The Turks want the Syrian opposition to Bashar al Asad to control the zone, thus stemming the advances from the east of Kurdish forces that the Turks regard as hostile to Ankara and supportive of Asad. The Americans want to weaken the Islamic State, which has been bringing men and supplies across the Turkish border into Syria. But there may be enough overlap between these somewhat disparate goals for practical purposes.
The zone will not however be safe just because we call it that. The territory in question is strategically important to the Islamic State, the Syrian opposition, the Syrian Kurds and the Turks. It will have to be protected. Lack of a formal no-fly zone is not the problem. Syrian aircraft know to steer clear of zones where the Americans fly. The use of Incirlik will enable a much more visible and constant US presence. The Americans reportedly intend also to train spotters to direct their air attacks. But indirect fire from artillery as well as infiltration of suicide bombers and other individual operatives could still sabotage any effort to establish a “safe” zone. Security is job 1.
The area will also need to be governed. This is where the Islamic State has excelled. Its brutality has reestablished fear in the populations it controls and enabled it to govern with minimal resources. ISIS brooks little dissent. It is unified, purposeful and predictable. Its courts are merciless. Crime in the areas it controls is down. Many Syrians no doubt would prefer to avoid the mistreatment ISIS dishes out, but in a chaotic situation they may prefer to accept the devil they know.
The Syrian opposition, which both the Turks and Americans will want to put in charge of any area they clear, has been anything but unified, purposeful and predictable. It will need to learn, fast. Withdrawal of ISIS has not brought peace and tranquility to Tikrit, Kobane and other recovered areas. Like it or not, ISIS is more like an insurgency than anything else. Dealing with it requires the counter-insurgency not just to clear but also to hold and build. Neither in Iraq nor in Syria has this part of the job been done well.
The situation will be particularly fraught because of Turkish involvement, which is of course necessary. But the Syrian Arab opposition distrusts the Turks and the Syrian Kurdish opposition loathes them. It is difficult to picture those sentiments overcome easily, especially as Turkey will control the border across which all logistical support for a safe zone will need to come. Turkey, the US and the Syrians (Arabs and Kurds) will need to engage with each other much more intensely than in the past if the problems are to be overcome.
Meanwhile, there are also rumors of a “safe” zone in the south, where my former intern Ala’ Alrababa’h says it will imperil Jordan. He is correct: it will. The question is whether the risks are worth running in order to protect the relatively well-organized moderate opposition on the southern front, keep extremists off the Jordanian and Israeli borders, and eventually help the opposition to mount an offensive farther north.
From the American perspective, these “safe” area proposals, which I would prefer to call protected zones, put President Obama where he has consistently tried to avoid going: on the slippery slope toward greater US involvement in Syria. He knows, as I do, that the “safe” areas in Bosnia only worked by failing and bringing on stronger intervention. Odds are any “safe” areas in Syria will also fail, but this president has been very disciplined. It is unclear whether he would then intervene more strongly. The Syrian opposition had better get its act together and begin governing effectively wherever it can.
PS: Bassam Barabandi of People Demand Change sent this nice picture of the potential zone: