President Barack Obama’s administration sought to avoid a diplomatic clash with Russia and Iran Monday when officials pointedly clarified that U.S. support of an “Islamic State-free zone” in northern Syria would not include a formal no-fly zone. American officials have long sought to combat the hardline Islamist group without angering Eastern rivals or escalating the United States’ involvement in Syrian’s ongoing civil war.
Exact details on U.S. and Turkish efforts to clear the Islamic State group (aka ISIS or ISIL) from a 68-mile stretch along the Syria-Turkey border were expected to be revealed after a planned NATO summit on Tuesday. Preliminary talks called for U.S. plans operating from Turkish military bases to provide air support for moderate Syrian rebels in their fight against ISIS. Russia and Iran are avowed supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and both countries have publicly vowed to oppose any effort by the United States to impose a no-fly zone over sovereign Syrian territory.
In an obvious bid to stave off criticism from Moscow and Tehran, a senior U.S. government official explained Monday “any joint military efforts” in Syria “will not include imposition of a no-fly zone,” the Washington Post reported. “The goal is to establish an ISIL-free zone and ensure greater security and stability along Turkey’s border in Syria,” the official said in a statement.
Yet any difference between the U.S.’s proposed efforts in northern Syria and a no-fly zone appears to rooted in semantics. In the traditional sense, a country or coalition that employs a no-fly zone uses frequent air patrols to prevent unauthorized aircraft from operating within a designated area. Turkey’s willingness to allow American aircraft to use its military bases would provide the United States with round-the-clock access to the airspace above the proposed “Islamic State-free zone.” One senior U.S. government official acknowledged the plan would create “nearly the same effect” as a true no-fly zone, CNN reported.
Last month, a top Russian official said any no-fly zone in Syria would show blatant disregard for international law. “I think we fundamentally will not allow this scenario," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said, according to Reuters.
Both the United States and Turkey approved military action against the Islamic State group in late 2014 after the extremist group seized vast tracts of territory in Iraq and Syria. ISIS leaders proclaimed their territory a new “caliphate,” took control of valuable oil fields and drove nearly two million Syrians from their homes. Many of the refugees fled across the border into Turkey.
The United States has focused its military efforts along the Turkey-Syria border against the extremist group and has not taken direct action against the Assad regime. Turkey has directly opposed Assad and seeks the end of his rule over Syria. The Obama administration resisted Turkey’s previous calls for a no-fly zone in the area not only out of concern for Russia and Iran’s reaction to the policy but also due to worries that its establishment would place American planes in direct conflict with the Syrian government’s air force and anti-air defenses.
Any effort to establish the proposed “safe zone” would also require the United States to navigate a quagmire of local conflicts in the area. While the Obama administration has vowed to help moderate groups in their fight against ISIS, air support for these factions would also aid them in their fight against the Assad regime and potentially draw the United States further into the Syrian Civil War.
U.S.-backed Kurdish rebels have proven effective against the Islamic State, but Turkey considers them enemy combatants, the Associated Press reported. And while the Turkish government purportedly envisions the safe zone as a haven for tens of thousands of refugees the Islamic State has driven from their homes, it also fears the aid will allow Kurdish fighters to seize vast tracts of territory in northern Syria, mere miles away from Turkey itself.