August 6, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State-Free Zone

• Turkey and the United States have agreed to establish an ‘Islamic State-free-zone’ in northern Syria

• The two countries, however, have different understandings of the zone

• But whatever form it takes, the Islamic State will fight hard to prevent it

• With this latest development in the Syrian war, the danger of mission creep increases, along with other risks and unintended consequences.


Although the agreement between the United States and Turkey to create an ‘Islamic State-free-zone’ in northern Syria has been greeted by both sides as a development of major significance, there is still widespread confusion about its nature and purpose. The United States and Turkey appear to have different understandings of what the agreement means; while the U.S. appears to regard it as a manageable quid pro quo for the use of Turkish air bases against the so-called Islamic State, Turkey sees it as a way to obtain an important measure of American support for some of its longer-term regional objectives.

The ‘Islamic State-free-zone’ will cover ground in an area currently under the group’s control between Azaz, a border town north of Aleppo to the west, and Jarablus, a border town on the Euphrates river to the east. Estimates of its possible size vary from ‘a large field’ to an area up to 68 miles long and 40 miles deep. Clearly, much will depend on what forces are available and acceptable to protect it. For the Turks, this will be a mix of Free Syrian Army groups—including those vetted and trained by the United States—and any others that are not obviously allied with the Islamic State or associated with the Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG), which is regarded by Turkey as too close to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). For the United States, it will primarily be the trained-and-equipped units that have fared so badly recently, plus any other group prepared to take on the Islamic State, including the YPG, which has seen the most success.

The lack of clarity over which groups are acceptable to both parties is important, because anyone trying to deny the Islamic State its last access points to the Turkish border will come under fierce attack and will require strong support. That in itself may not create complications if the attack is from the Islamic State, but if other rebel groups—such as Jabhat al-Nusra or Ahrar al-Sham or other members of the combined rebel force known as Jaish al-Fateh—attack the enclave, the United States could be drawn deeper into the conflict, despite its determination to stay away. The U.S. already had to come to the aid of the vetted anti-Islamic State force when Jabhat al-Nusra attacked Division 30 headquarters last Friday, stretching the scope of its military engagement beyond the stated limits of attacking Islamic State and al-Qaeda members who threaten the homeland. A further such engagement would begin to challenge the elasticity of the Authorization for Use of Military Force that provides the legal basis for the anti-Islamic State campaign. The situation would become still more complex if the Syrian army or air force launched an attack, which is clearly possible, especially in the region north of Aleppo.

Although there is agreement on the name, the concept of the ‘Islamic State-free-zone’ remains vague, and has also been described as a ‘safe zone,’ a ‘buffer zone,’ a ‘de facto no-fly zone,’ and a ‘Kurdish separation zone.’ For Turkey, it is a way to prevent Kurdish groups from establishing control along the whole of its southern border. Although the YPG has denied having anything to do with the PKK, tensions have risen considerably since the July 20 bomb attack on a pro-Kurdish student gathering in Suruç and the subsequent airstrikes by Turkey against PKK camps in northern Iraq. In this context, President Erdogan is accused of stirring up anti-Kurdish feeling in Turkey as a way of taking votes away from the two opposition parties—the pro-Kurdish Turkish Peoples Democratic Party (HDP) and the anti-Kurdish Nationalist Movement Party (MHP)—in advance of the elections that may take place in November if Prime Minister Davutoglu cannot form a new government in the next three weeks. A secondary objective for Turkey is to create a foothold in Syria from which coalition partners could take the fight to the Syrian regime—whether voluntarily or through the inevitable process of mission creep.

Turkey has also described the zone as being a potential refuge for many of the 1.8 million Syrian refugees now in Turkey, and others displaced by the fighting. However, the chaos that would arise from large movements of civilians uncertain of where they were going and in need of large amounts of humanitarian support and physical protection, makes this an unrealistic objective in the short term.

Although the United States has insisted that it is not creating a no-fly zone, both sides accept that it will likely be the case, whether deliberate or not. The United States flew its first drone strike from Turkey on Monday, and manned flights will follow. The growing intensity of air activity against the Islamic State, and the clear interest in nurturing the development of any indigenous force that is prepared to fight the group without espousing its views, will mean that the United States will be extremely protective of the Islamic State-free enclave—especially after the recent embarrassing defeat of its vetted units by Jabhat al-Nusra. Even so, it is not clear what would happen if rebel forces in the ‘Islamic State-free-zone’ came under attack from Syrian helicopters or Iranian-backed fighters. In this case, the optics would be appalling whether the United States responded or did nothing.

Finally, there is no explanation by either Turkey or the United States of what should happen once the zone is established. Logically, it would continue to expand until it could threaten Raqqa, the Islamic State's capital in Syria. But even if it were militarily capable of doing so, it would lack any capacity to control the territory it had taken. Therefore both success and failure would leave the United States in a difficult position of calibrating the level of its participation against new threats of disorder. On Wednesday, the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, promised a ‘comprehensive battle’ against the Islamic State, and suggested that the UK, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan might join in.  This level of escalation is highly unlikely, but the ‘Islamic State free-zone’ would not have to be very big to include places of immense importance to the group, such as Dabiq and Manbij, and it would require highly trained and well-equipped forces to dislodge it.

It is a question, therefore, whether the zone will be characterized more by constructive ambiguity or by destructive misunderstanding. For the moment, it seems that both Turkey and the United States have a firm idea of what it means, but their interpretations are quite different. Nonetheless, an 'Islamic State-free-zone' will be bad news for the group if it cuts off the last two remaining crossing points into Turkey for foreign fighters and supplies. Turkey has already declared a military exclusion zone along its side of the border, but the 'Islamic State-free-zone' will make the fight a lot more complicated and create new challenges for both the Turkish policy of weakening the Kurds and for the U.S. policy of taking on the Islamic State while limiting its direct engagement.


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