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U.S. Turkey To Create ISIS Free Zone Along Syrian Border


Let's ask now what a shift in U.S. tactics really means for Syria. The U.S. is adjusting its approach to the self-declared Islamic State.


The U.S. and Turkey want to push ISIS away from the Turkish border, creating an ISIS-free zone. This idea follows years of talks about creating some kind of protected area in Syria.

INSKEEP: Former U.S. ambassador, Robert Ford, has been involved in that debate for years. He says at the start of the Syrian Civil War, some people wanted to seal off an area from Syria's government.

ROBERT FORD: The idea began to circulate widely in 2012 because there were such large numbers of Syrian refugees going into countries like Turkey and Jordan. And those governments themselves began to raise informally - with the Americans and with other countries - the idea of having a zone, basically a belt, along the Syrian-Jordanian border or the Syrian-Turkish border where refugees could stay and where they would be protected from the kind of bombardments that were driving many of the refugees out of Syria in the first place.

INSKEEP: People have also talked over the last few years about some kind of no-fly zone. What was that and how would that of worked?

FORD: Well, the no-fly zone would work in some ways like a safe zone, but it might be actually a little less in terms of it would stop enemy aircraft from bombing. But a no-fly zone like that would not prevent hostile forces from, for example, bringing artillery or tanks and shooting into the no-fly zone.

INSKEEP: Now, both of those ideas were originally conceived of as a way to protect Syrian civilians from the government of Syria, the government of Bashar al-Assad.

FORD: Correct.

INSKEEP: Now, we're in a situation where the United States and other powers are at least as worried about the so-called Islamic State. So now we have discussions underway which, according to U.S. officials, would create an ISIS-free zone...

FORD: Correct.

INSKEEP: ...Sixty-eight miles or so of territory along the Turkish-Syrian border. What's an ISIS-free zone?

FORD: This is a military issue, Steve, not a humanitarian or refugee issue. The Americans want this area cleared of Islamic State militants. They want Syria cleared of Islamic State militants. This little safe zone that we're talking about or the Islamic State-free zone is just a military operation to clear the Islamic State militants out of that area. And it certainly would - again, from a purely military point of view - open up more easily supply lines for Syrian rebel groups that are fighting both the Islamic State and the Assad government.

INSKEEP: And maybe not to put it too cynically, but I suppose the Turks could also then create a place where they could nudge some refugees back out of Turkey and back into this relatively safe part of Syria.

FORD: I think that's possible, but it will be difficult for the Syrian refugees because what facilities are there in this area to house them? Are there tents? Are there - is there any kind of infrastructure? There are a couple of small Syrian towns in this area that we're talking about, but they would not be able to handle hundreds of thousands of refugees, and the Turks are now hosting close to two million Syrian refugees.

INSKEEP: So does this ISIS-free zone or Islamic State-free zone make sense to you?

FORD: It makes sense to me in this way - we won't get to a national political settlement in Syria until there is more pressure on Bashar al-Assad. We won't get that pressure on Bashar al-Assad without strengthening the Syrian rebel groups. And so if this step - as small as it is - increases the pressure on Bashar through the Syrian rebel groups, I think it's good. But it will not make a rapid change in the situation in Syria. It will not bring an end to the Civil War today, tomorrow or the next day. And it will not fix the Syrian refugee problem.

INSKEEP: As someone who has been so deeply and personally involved in this story for years, do you get a little frustrated hearing about what can seem like tiny, tiny incremental steps in a policy that's not quite working?

FORD: I think any human being who sees the immense tragedy that Syria has become - the families destroyed, the hundreds of thousands of people killed, people have reduced to desperate refugees in places like Turkey and Jordan - you can't help but cry for Syria, and you can't help but want for the international community to do more. And for the international community to do more, we know that the United States has to lead.

INSKEEP: I think that was a yes. You are frustrated.

FORD: Exceptionally frustrated.

INSKEEP: Ambassador Ford, thanks very much.

FORD: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Robert Ford is a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.