Bizarre ‘anti-ISIS’ zone planned on Syrian border has U.S. military stumped

Bizarre ‘anti-ISIS’ zone planned on Syrian border has U.S. military stumped
Turkish tank patrols the border near Suruc. (Image: AP via EKurd)

What lies beyond surreal?  Whatever it is, America is about to probe its depths, unless something intervenes to prevent the implementation of a U.S.-Turkish accord that would allow American forces to use Turkish air bases for strikes in Syria.

The U.S. has for months been seeking permission to use Turkey’s Incirlik air base in the campaign against Islamic State.  Incirlik is a Cold War-era base from which U.S. air forces have operated for years.  But Turkey has been selective about its use in the post-1991 period (prohibiting American use, notoriously, for the 2003 invasion of Iraq).

After the terrorist attack on the border town of Suruc, Turkey on 20 July – linked to Islamic State – Obama and Erdogan reportedly agreed in a phone call to bring Turkey into the campaign against ISIS, and begin operating American military aircraft in that fight from Turkish bases.

But what the character of that partnership will be remains a mystery.  It’s not just a mystery to the public.  The U.S. military doesn’t understand it either.

Shell-shocked Americans may not be capable of registering the appropriate horror at this reality.  Too many things are coming at us all at once.  But it’s bad.  Two factors give a flavor of how bad it is:

1.  The Obama administration refuses to define a territorial or operational objective.

2.  U.S. forces aren’t sure whom they’ll be allowed to shoot at.

If it’s not clear, to those without military planning experience, this has disaster written all over it.

Perhaps, by the grace of God, the Americans in combat and those who ally themselves with us will be spared the worst immediate consequences from launching an operation in this manner.  But it will not be possible for such an operation to create conditions for a better peace – and in fact, its most likely outcome over time will be unplanned metastasis.

That said, the geographic positioning of the operation will have a significant function, at least from the perspective of the Turks.  More on that below.

A non-zone “zone,” and other nonsense

First, a few choice passages from the reporting in the last 24 hours about U.S. “policy” – if we may call it that – on the impending collaboration.  The Obama administration is pulling its signature move of triangulating against all positive military objectives.  It emphatically does not want to create a “safe zone” or a “no-fly zone,” according to a call with journalists on Tuesday, 28 July.  The most it will speak of (if not precisely commit to) is a “not-really-a-zone for clearing ISIS.”

Josh Rogin reports:

U.S. officials are insisting that — contrary to reports — there are definitely no U.S. plans for a “safe zone” inside Syria. In fact, there really is no “zone,” and there is no plan to keep the area “safe.” …

[I]n a conference call with reporters Tuesday, three senior administration officials made it clear that there are no U.S. plans for a safe zone, a no-fly zone, an air-exclusionary zone, a humanitarian buffer zone or any other protected zone of any kind.

“We’re not out there staking out zones and doing some things that I know have been discussed in years past — no-fly zones, safe zones. What we’re trying to do is clear ISIL,” a senior administration official said. “I think it’s important not to confuse that with staking out these zones that you can identify with road signs and on big maps, and that’s just not what’s happening.”

How to know you’ve cleared ISIS if you don’t draw a line on a map somewhere is just one of the many problems with this approach.  Keeping ISIS out – seemingly implied in the vaguely defined task – is basically impossible without some kind of territorial delineation.  But apparently, the implication from keeping ISIS out (i.e., that we might be creating a “safe zone”) is further than U.S. officials want to go.

It’s hard to prioritize the problems with this, because they all loom huge, but this next one is a doozy:  the military doesn’t know which forces it will be required or even authorized to fire on in order to “clear ISIS.”

What if Syrian national forces – i.e., Assad’s – engage coalition forces, or are in the wrong place at the wrong time?  There’s no answer for that.  Literally.  Here’s Molly O’Toole at Defense One:

“In terms of what exactly it looks like and how it will look and what the modalities are, that’s what we have to work out with them,” one official said of the “safe zone.” …

He added later, “Safe zone or whatever you want to call it, the idea is to get [ISIS] out of this area.”

But he dodged a question of what steps the U.S. is considering to ensure there’s no conflict between the U.S. and Syrian government operations given their close proximity in the area. He noted that so far, Assad’s forces haven’t engaged.

“We’ve been at this now for some time,” the official said… “And from the first night of the strikes, we’ve been very clear through various channels to the Syrian government that we were going after [ISIS] and that they should not come into the area in which we’re operating. So I would assume that we’ll have a standard procedure.”

If it hasn’t occurred to American officials yet that Assad – and especially his Iranian backers – are likely to react differently to an onslaught from a new direction, in concert with Turkey, and directly affecting territory Assad and Hezbollah have been fighting for, it presumably will soon.

There is also the question of who besides Assad and ISIS may be hostile to the U.S.-Turkish project.  That would be easier to gauge if it were explicitly clear what Turkey expects to get out of this.  Most observers are assuming, based on recent Turkish strikes on the PKK in eastern Turkey and Iraq, that Erdogan and Davutoglu (in theory the prime minister now, if he can put together a coalition) will use the collaboration with the U.S. as cover to thwart the Kurds in Syria.

The observers have jumped on reports that the Turks fired Sunday on Kurdish positions near Kobane, where the Syrian Kurds have had success against Islamic State forces.  And the reports are probably true.  But important as the Kurdish problem is to Ankara, Kurdish gains aren’t the only thing the Turkish government has in mind.

Turkey’s ISIS connection

In that regard, recent discoveries about the Turkish connection to Islamic State are a key.  According to the Guardian on 25 July, a U.S.-led raid on an ISIS compound in May 2015 unearthed a treasure trove of documentation on this connection.  Turkish middlemen have been funding ISIS for months, to the tune of millions of dollars, by buying oil from the guerrillas – implicitly with the knowledge and support of the Turkish government.

Reuters summarized the findings:

The officer killed in the raid, Islamic State official Abu Sayyaf, was responsible for directing the terror army’s oil and gas operations in Syria. The Islamic State (aka ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) earns up to $10 million a month selling oil on black markets.

Documents and flash drives seized during the Sayyaf raid reportedly revealed links “so clear” and “undeniable” between Turkey and ISIS “that they could end up having profound policy implications for the relationship between us and Ankara,” senior Western official familiar with the captured intelligence told the Guardian.

Going vague

The Obama administration is obviously aware of this.  There are a couple of points to make about the situation, given this fact.  One, the vagueness of the U.S. plan comports nicely with a putative Turkish determination to not be restricted by an exclusively anti-ISIS goal.  Keeping the plan extraordinarily vague would serve a Turkish demand for latitude.

The other point is that vagueness is a common pattern with the characteristically defensive – even idiotically defensive – approach of the Obama administration.  Recall that in October, we learned that the U.S. would train a ground force (which now, nine months later, has a total of 60 fighters) to defensively hold small patches of territory in Syria, in service of no stated objective.

The nature of this plan was similar in spirit to the deliberately goal-deficient “non-hostile kinetic military action” in Libya in 2011, which had no territorial definition for any U.S. purpose, but occasionally bombed convoys moving Qadhafi’s forces around – basically as a means of dogging Qadhafi without otherwise helping the Libyan rebels.

Merely attacking one faction of fighters, without pursuing any specific political or territorial objective, seems to be how Obama’s circle of top advisors likes to operate.  (The team that perpetrated the effort in Libya is mostly still in place:  Susan Rice, Samantha Power, and Valerie Jarrett.  Hillary Clinton is the one missing piece.)  Clearly this method gets no one anywhere – Libya, Iraq, and Syria are all raging messes after these peculiar ministrations from the United States – but it has the advantage of avoiding political accountability at home.  (As long as uniformed U.S. lives aren’t lost.)

What the map tells us

It also has the advantage of fitting in perfectly with the latitude Turkey is assumed to want.  This observation introduces the final point, harking back to the geographic significance, mentioned earlier, of where the U.S.-Turkish collaboration is expected to unfold.  The 68-mile “non-zone” zone, depicted on map 1, lies between Kobane and Aleppo.  And that is actually very informative.

Depiction by UK Guardian of the non-zone "zone" on the Syrian border from which ISIS is to be cleared.  (Map credit: Guardian)
Map 1. Depiction by UK Guardian of the non-zone “zone” on the Syrian border from which ISIS is to be cleared. (Map credit: Guardian)

This zone – we shall call it that here, for want of a better word – is theoretically situated to hem in the Kurds, although from the Turkish perspective, the Kurds aren’t really a major factor that far west.  It’s not where the Kurds are fighting.  At some future point, they might potentially want to link up with the small Kurdish enclave northwest of Aleppo.  (See map 2.)  But for now, they are fighting for their lives in the area further east where their own stronghold abuts the territory gained by ISIS.

Realistically, the Kurds are no doubt aware that they will not be able to present Turkey with a fait accompli in terms of held territory.  A negotiated and sustainable solution for some form of Kurdish autonomy will involve give and take, and Turkey will always have the power and standing to successfully veto a Kurdish territorial presence along most of the length of Turkey’s southern border.  Trying to spread a “Kurdistan” all along that border is a non-starter.  I doubt the Kurds intend to try jumping the gap across the zone being eyed by Turkey and the U.S.

Map 2.  Factional holdings in July 2015.  The non-zone "zone" overlays the ISIS patch between Aleppo and Kobane. (Map credit: Institute for the Study of War via WaPo)
Map 2. Factional holdings in July 2015. The non-zone “zone” overlays the ISIS patch between Aleppo and Kobane. (Map credit: Institute for the Study of War via WaPo)

If the Turks wanted clean cover for attacking the Kurds, meanwhile, they’d want a collaboration zone to the east of the proposed one, where the Kurds actually are.

But ISIS is already in the prospective zone.  And the zone itself is key terrain, lying on the northern edge of the territory to the south being disputed between ISIS and the Assad regime.  It also skirts the territory west of Aleppo where the Syrian opposition is dug in.  It’s a central position to exert a veto over, and gain de facto control of – even if it’s only control by negation at the beginning.  Running down the plain east of Aleppo, it commands a relatively straight shot to Damascus, a route flanking both Aleppo and Homs through territory held by either Assad and his backers, or by ISIS.

From Turkey’s perspective, that’s a comparatively clean picture.  The wild card in Syria isn’t either Assad/Iran or ISIS (or even the Kurds); it’s the Free Syrian Army and the ragtag Sunni groups like al-Nusra.  Turkey need not be friends with a well-organized faction to know what to do about the faction: to be able to plan against it and deal with it.  The regime forces and Islamic State are both coherent entities Turkey can plan against.

I believe it’s a mistake to think that the Turks only want to concentrate on thwarting the Kurds.  It’s also a mistake to think that they want to throw in with ISIS – as big a mistake as thinking that they suddenly want to really attack and degrade ISIS.  They want to set limits on ISIS and keep ISIS useful but in a geographic box.  The “zone” is the perfect place to start gaining that upper hand over an ISIS they still want to encourage.

Their long-term objective, given the territory they want to operate in under cover of collaborating with the U.S., is to exert the influence of an armed veto over the future of Syria.  If Iran, and perhaps Russia, have to negotiate with someone over the future of Syria, it will by rights be Turkey.  Even without Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman perspective, that much is both geographically and historically obvious – if the European-imposed Sykes-Picot architecture is well and truly dead.

Which, of course, it is.  Nothing signifies that so clearly as the Obama administration’s unseemly urgency about pushing through the non-deal “agreement” on Iran’s nuclear program.  It isn’t intemperate, it’s merely colloquial, to observe that the United States, former superpower and global arbiter, has gone totally off the reservation.  The security gates of the post-Ottoman status quo lie in ruins now.  Anything is possible, and Turkey is inevitably going to begin asserting herself.

(Notably, a colorful “government whistleblower” in Turkey has already reported that the terror attack in Suruc on 20 July was an inside job.  Such speculation isn’t completely far-fetched, given that the head of Turkish national intelligence was heard in a recording in 2014 explaining how he could get Turkey into the Syrian fight using a false-flag operation.)

How is all this going to work out for the Turks?  It’s hard to say, considering that the recently elected prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu (formerly the foreign minister), hasn’t been able to put together a governing coalition yet.  Public support for his and Erdogan’s long-ruling AKP (Justice and Development) party has unquestionably slipped.  Parliamentary crises keep trying to get started, relating to the Kurdish issue (e.g., the political “immunity” move this week) as well as the controversial activities of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now occupying the office of president – and a $615 million, 1,000-room palace.  How free the government’s hands will be to pursue a more aggressive policy in Syria is an open question.

Russia and Iran will bristle.  NATO will experience a little disquiet.  But Turkey has some major advantages, such as by far the biggest, best-equipped military in the relevant theater, and – uniquely – a big navy to flank the whole sorry mess off the coast.

And the U.S. will be helping out.  Interestingly, there is no hint in this collaboration of the “responsibility to protect” theme beloved of Samantha Power, which reared its head in Libya in 2011, and implicitly in the “defensive holding” enclaves proposal for Syria last fall.  In fact, U.S. officials disclaimed any intention of protecting a humanitarian zone on this outing, according to reporters who were in the conference call on Tuesday.  Divorcing this operation from territorial definition seems to be the highest priority for the Obama administration.

With all that in mind, it’s worth hearing from the administration one more time.  Josh Rogin again, reporting on the Tuesday conference call:

“What we’re doing is we’re going after ISIL wherever we find them up there in the north,” one official said. “And now we have a kind of final stretch of border to work on that we’re going to work cooperatively with the Turks on that.  In terms of what exactly it looks like and how it will look and what the modalities are, that’s what we have to work out with them.”

Basically, we’re there for the convenience of Turkey.  I guess at some point Ankara will let our forces know whom they’re allowed to shoot at.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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