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Turkey Grants Access for US Warplanes as Syrian War Escalates

Posted July 28th, 2015 at 5:53 pm (UTC-4)
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By Barbara Slavin

After four years of trying to avoid major entanglement in Syria’s multisided civil war, the Obama administration is being pulled deeper into the fight to stem the advances of the group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS).

Turkey’s decision at long last to allow the U.S. to fly armed drones and other combat missions out of the NATO base at Incirlik and potentially Turkish air force bases such as one at Diyarbakir farther east, should increase the ability of the anti-IS coalition to seal off crossings IS has used to funnel in foreign fighters and other supplies.

With the U.S. and U.S.-trained Iraqi forces also stepping up military activity against IS in Iraq, there is a real possibility of squeezing the territory controlled by the organization in both countries and starving it of new resources. Much depends, however, on developing a coherent strategy among the many parties in the coalition, which may be difficult to achieve given their disparate priorities.


Even after a devastating suicide bombing  on a Turkish border town that was carried out by IS, Turkey still appears to place a higher priority on fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad and Kurdish guerrillas than on hitting the Sunni extremist group.

Immediately after the announcement about the new rules of engagement regarding Incirlik, Turkish forces bombed strongholds in Iraq of a Turkish Kurdish organization, the PKK, which is affiliated with the Syrian Kurdish PYD. With the U.S. reluctant to send more American combat forces to the region, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds have been among the most effective  ground forces against IS. Turkey and the U.S. consider the PKK a terrorist organization but the PKK is close to the PYD.

It remains unclear how closely U.S. and Turkish priorities mesh.

“The problem is when you ask allies to do things, they do it in their own way,” said Andrew Tabler, an expert on Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

No-fly zone

According to Turkey, the U.S. has now acquiesced to the creation of a no-fly zone in a patch of northern Syria adjacent to the Turkish border. Turkey has long sought a safe haven there to insert anti-Assad forces and keep displaced Syrian civilians who would otherwise join the nearly two million Syrian refugees in Turkey.

U.S. officials deny the Turkish claim, but use language that suggests otherwise. For example, State Department spokesman John Kirby said Monday, “there’s no imposition of a no-fly zone, and we’re not considering one. But what is under consideration … is deepening cooperation with our Turkish allies to counter ISIL [another acronym for IS] in northwest Syria.”

Kirby continued that since coalition aircraft flying in the area are not facing any opposition from the Assad regime or IS – which has no airplanes – “it’s almost having the same effect as if there was one [a no-fly zone], because only coalition aircraft are occupying that airspace. ”

On Tuesday, another senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the goal was to close off the last 68 miles of international border controlled by the self-styled IS caliphate.
U.S. officials are also planning to insert more U.S.-trained and vetted Syrian forces into northern Syria, even though the pace of that training remains incredibly slow.

According to Tabler, the objective is to “fill up a pocket” north of Aleppo between Afrin and Jarablus toward the Euphrates. The local population there is primarily Sunni Arab and Turkmen, according to Tabler, and would provide a buffer not just against IS but against further advances westward by Syrian Kurds. Turkey wants to prevent the PYD from connecting with Turkish Kurds and creating another de-facto Kurdish state-let along the Turkish-Syrian border.

It is not clear how deep into Syria this buffer zone will go. The senior U.S. official said that “the depth, shape and modalities are all things we are discussing with the Turks.”

Fred Hof, a former State Department official now at the Atlantic Council, questioned whether the zone would extend to areas still being barrel-bombed by the Assad regime such as the town of El Bab.

The increased U.S. and Turkish roles in Syria coincide with a further weakening of the Assad regime. Assad recently acknowledged that his government is having trouble recruiting new soldiers and that the Syrian army is “fatigued” after four years of fighting.

Experts doubt, however, that Assad’s fall is imminent and instead see a continued fracturing of the country. The regime holds Damascus and a corridor to the Mediterranean coast but scores of other groups occupy the rest of Syria.


The recent U.S.-led success in achieving a long-term nuclear agreement with Iran has led some to hope for an intensified diplomatic effort to achieve at least a cease-fire in a conflict that has killed a quarter of a million people and displaced 11 million, including more than four million  who have fled the country. In the wake of the Iran deal, Secretary of State John Kerry has said it would be “diplomatic malpractice” not to try to build on it to address other regional crises.

But the region remains at odds not just regarding Syria but Yemen, where another civil war is creating a humanitarian catastrophe. Saudi Arabia, which backs the ousted government of Yemen, is fighting Houthi rebels affiliated with Iran.

Meanwhile, the Syrian war is looking increasingly like the 1975-1989 Lebanese civil war on steroids. In addition to Turkey and the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan are all backing different Sunni factions while Iran, its Lebanese partner, Hezbollah, and Russia prop up the Assad regime.

“We’re on the way to a pretty hot couple of years in Syria,” Tabler predicts. “I think the war is going to escalate.”

Barbara Slavin is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and Washington Correspondent for, a website devoted to news from and about the Middle East. The author of Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation (2007), she is a regular commentator on US foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, and C-SPAN.

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