The United States and Turkey have reached an agreement, long sought by the Turks, to establish a safe zone in Syria to insulate Turkey from the multi-sided civil war in Syria and to provide a sanctuary to which many of the two million Syrian refugees now in Turkey can be repatriated. In return, the Turks are now conducting air strikes against ISIS and also will provide a much closer air base than the United States heretofore has had to attack ISIS in Syria, making U.S. and coalition air strikes more effective against the group. Yet, on balance, this may be a bad deal for the United States.
Part of behaving imperially – that is, like a globe-meddling superpower – means worrying about threats in all regions of the world, no matter how remote, more than the countries in them do. Turkey, right on the border with Syria and Iraq, should have long been more worried about ISIS than was the faraway Unite States. Yet Turkey has been more worried about ousting the Syrian ruler, Bashar al-Assad, from power and about Kurds in Syria and Iraq stirring up separatism in the minority Turkish Kurd population than it has about ISIS, even though some ISIS violence has crossed its border with those two countries. In fact, Turkey was so obsessed with taking out Assad, it let Islamist militant recruits pass through its border, some of whom joined ISIS.
Now, with a new ISIS-free safe zone on the Syria-Turkish border, created using "moderate" non-Kurdish Syrian rebels on the ground aided by now intensive Turkish and U.S.-led coalition air strikes, Turkey will feel insulated from the Syrian civil war and not take the action it really needs to take: sending its large and proficient ground forces on an incursion into Syria to battle ISIS. To date, U.S.-led bombing of ISIS has inflicted some damage on the group, but bombing also kills civilians, causing much anger which can often generate more militant fighters. Thus, it is dubious that only bombing a group such as ISIS from the air will be effective in eradicating it in the long run. In the end, capable ground forces will be needed to fight ISIS toe-to-toe and occupy the territory it now holds.
The main problem that the United States has had in battling ISIS in both Syria and Iraq is a shortage of friendly and capable local or regional ground forces with which to partner. In Iraq, the U.S.-trained Iraqi army cut and ran on two major occasions, and the best fighting forces are unfriendly Iran-trained Shi’ite militias, which only generate more support for ISIS in the long term when they are sent into Sunni territory, the areas that support the Sunni fundamentalist ISIS group. In Iraq and Syria, the Kurds also have been skilled fighters on the ground against ISIS, but they are best when fighting in Kurdish areas. That’s why Turkish ground forces – which are the second largest in NATO, next to those of the United States, and very capable – are so needed in the fight against ISIS.
But if Turkey feels more insulated from ISIS and the Syrian civil war – as the safe zone created by Turkish and coalition bombing will ensure – it is even more unlikely to use its army to battle ISIS. What’s more, the Turks are already using the safe zone agreement to bomb their own Kurdish separatists in Iraq, in addition to conducting air strikes on ISIS. These Kurdish separatists are allied with the Syrian Kurds who have been effective fighters against ISIS. To the extent that Turkish bombing impedes Kurdish resistance to ISIS, it actually may be counterproductive to US interests.
One other problem with the safe zone idea is that the "moderate" non-Kurdish Syrian opposition forces that will be used on the ground to create it in conjunction with coalition air strikes are small, beat up by the civil war, and not seemingly very capable. A measly 60 moderate opposition fighters have been trained by the Pentagon. A somewhat greater number have been trained by the CIA, but they are enmeshed on the battlefield with al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Syrian rebel group. So it is uncertain if these moderate forces will be effective in creating a safe zone or whether coalition air strikes will unintentionally help al-Qaeda as much or more than the moderates. After the US fiascoes in the complex countries of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the United States should be wary such unintended consequences in an extremely convoluted Syrian civil war.
The bottom line is that a safe zone that drags the United States further into a quagmire that its regional friends should be taking the lead on, and insulates the one country that should be doing the most against ISIS, is a bad idea. But if the United States always comes to the rescue, which it usually has done in the past, what incentive do regional powers, such as Turkey, have to take the lead in doing more to police their own areas.