Turkey plans to take over Syria's Aleppo province under a new deal coordinated with the U.S. to create a safe zone in northern Syria, a Turkish newspaper reported Wednesday. Turkey currently controls 81 provinces in Syria and Aleppo could join that list once militants with the Islamic State group are pushed out of northern Syria, the state-run Daily Sabah reported.
Aleppo province is currently under the control of dozens of opposition rebel factions, including Kurdish militants, and Turkey plans to push them out of the area with the help of U.S. airstrikes. If successful, Turkey will oversee a piece of land that it has long sought to control.
Turkey and Syria have long disputed the areas that run along the border between the two countries. For example, both countries claim that they have lawful control of the Hatay province in eastern Turkey where thousands of Syrians have fled during Syria's ongoing civil war. Syria claims the province is part of its country as laid out in the French Mandate of Syria, a mandate founded after World War I and the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey technically took over the province in 1938, but Syria never formally renounced its rights. Despite the longstanding dispute between Syria and Turkey over the border region, tensions decreased when Syrian President Bashar Assad took office in 2000.
The U.S. and Turkey have been working to create a "safe zone" aimed at pushing back Islamic State group militants from the Syrian-Turkish border. Under the plan, Turkish troops and Syrian rebel fighters are to clear a 60-mile strip of land along the border to create a haven for Syrian refugees, who have flooded Turkey's borders during Syria's four-year civil war. The U.S. and Turkey will rely on rebels on the ground to secure the buffer zone. The rebels are supposed to get regular shipments of ammunition and heavy weaponry to ensure that the Sunni militants also known as ISIS stay out of the area.
Turkey has already begun bombing ISIS targets in northern Syria, and American planes are supposed to take part in the offensive within the next few weeks.
Part of Turkey's campaign in northern Syria is aimed at Kurdish militants that control areas of land there. Turkish planes have bombed targets controlled by the Kurdistan Workers' Party, also known as the PKK, but are also bombing Kurdish fighters that have longed worked with the U.S. to defeat ISIS. For more than a week, reporters have pressed U.S. officials in media briefings about why the White House is not addressing Turkey's most recent crackdown. But the U.S. appears to be looking the other way.
"Turkey has continued to come under attack by PKK terrorists, and we recognize their right to defend themselves against those attacks," U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a briefing last week. He added that the U.S. is not letting Turkey's attacks on Kurdish militants, or its treatment of Kurdish politicians, get in the way of joint efforts to fight the Islamic State group in Syria.
The Syrian government requested Wednesday that Turkey coordinate with Damascus so as not to impinge on Syrian sovereignty.
“Syria is fighting terrorism on behalf of the world, and it welcomes any effort that is put in the framework of combating terrorism providing that the national sovereignty is respected,” Walid al-Moallem, Syria’s foreign minister, said Wednesday, state media reported.
Middle East analysts have described American and Turkish operations in northern Syria as a "mission creep", meaning that the countries were increasing their involvement in the country with an open-ended military campaign.
"This agreement is just one more sign that U.S. leaders have no clear plan for how to tackle ISIS in Syria and little leverage to get its supposed allies to cooperate. Recognizing that sending U.S. troops to Syria would be dangerous and costly, the administration has opted for bombing raids alone," Emma Ashford, a visiting fellow at the Cato Institute, a conservative think-tank in Washington, D.C., wrote in a recent article. "But while airstrikes have undoubtedly killed many ISIS members, they have made no substantial progress against the group due to a lack of viable on-the-ground support."