Just days after the Obama Administration told the New York Times it would be working with Turkey to drive back ISIS in Syria, it seems to have ruled out every practical means of doing so. As Josh Rogin reports at Bloomberg, officials have today clarified that the Administration has “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” in Syria. More:
The key difference between what the Obama administration is saying today versus the news reports earlier this week is not whether there is an area that the U.S. and Turkey will work to clear of Islamic State fighters. The dispute is whether that area will be “safe,” especially from air attacks. The White House is wary of any plan that could put it in military conflict with the Assad regime, and has made no decision to protect opposition forces or civilians from its air assaults. […]
In addition to tamping speculation about safe zones, the three senior administration officials said Tuesday that no U.S. or Turkish troops would be used to clear the border area of jihadists. “Moderate opposition forces” would do the job. They did not specify which opposition forces would be used, only that they would have to be agreed on by both Washington and Ankara.
That eliminates Kurdish forces and radical Islamists, who would be unacceptable to Ankara and Washington, respectively, leaving—who, exactly? The 60 fighters that we have so far trained and vetted in Syria?
This isn’t a plan but a list of contradictory desires, and there’s no indication we’ve given any thought to how to reconcile them. Rogin’s piece is well enough sourced that it seems to indicate this is not a messaging problem, but a strategy problem. Such muddled thinking is how you wind up with statements like this one:
“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.”
The thinking here and in Rogin’s piece as a whole thinking flies in the face of several of the most important lessons the four year Syrian Civil War (and one-year fight against ISIS) has taught. Among them: Absent a credible ground force, air power alone cannot drive back ISIS; the Sunni powers, including Turkey, are highly wary of any plan that takes on ISIS but doesn’t touch Assad; and perhaps most importantly of all, putting off hard choices doesn’t make problems go away, but clears the way for others to act.
As if to prove this final point, Turkey has unleashed its deadliest attacks to date against the PKK, earlier today bombing targets in both Iraq and within its own borders. Only yesterday NATO leaders, in blessing Turkey’s new offensive, had asked Ankara to distinguish between ISIS and Kurdish separatist party in northern Iraq (the PKK) and to show restraint in fighting the latter. Kurds in Turkey are suggesting, not without reason, that the political machinations of President Recep Erdogan behind the recent military moves, while Iraq’s prime minister called the attacks on positions within his country a “dangerous escalation and a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty”. Meanwhile, the U.S. sits on the sidelines.
As Walter Russell Mead wrote last week, Syria is the key to many of our problems in the Middle East. And for the first time in years, the U.S. holds some promising cards to play there, between the Turkish desire for revenge on ISIS, Assad’s waning strength, and the conclusion of the nuclear deal with Iran which, in theory, was supposed to untie our hands to act against regional aggression. But reports such as these indicate that the White House has not yet come to grips with what engagement will actually take.