The U.S. military’s top-ranking officer says contingency plans have been drawn up for a safe zone in consultation with Turkey, while a senior Pentagon official has told Hürriyet that this is conditional on Turkey’s steps on plans to train Syrian rebels, which remains a source of tension between the two countries.
“We’ve been planning for such a contingency for some time,” General Martin Dempsey told members of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee on May 6.Dempsey said U.S. forces were capable of carving out a buffer zone in Syria but it was a “major political decision” and would mean troops stationed elsewhere would not be available for other missions.
“It’s practical militarily, but it would be a significant policy decision to do so,” he said.
He also said that for “this to be practical and effective, it would have to involve regional partners.”
Turkey has long called for a safe area to be set up along the Syrian-Turkish border to protect civilians, but President Barack Obama’s administration has yet to endorse the idea.
Creating a humanitarian safe zone in Syria would entail a “major combat mission” requiring U.S. troops to fight jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), other extremist groups and the Damascus regime, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said at the same hearing.
Carter emphasized the challenges involved in establishing a buffer zone, and warned that other regional governments might not be ready to contribute to the effort.
“We would need to fight to create such a space and then fight to keep such a space. That’s why it’s a difficult thing to contemplate,” Carter said.
The “practicalities” would be “significant,” he added.
As dozens of U.S. soldiers have reportedly arrived in Turkey to begin training Syrian rebels, a gap between the Turkey and the U.S. remains on who these forces will fight, according to a senior U.S. official, who linked the creation of safe zones to any rapprochement on the issue.
“There is no progress yet about the differences we have with the Turks on the enemy for the train-and-equip program,” the official told Hürriyet.
“The priority for us is ISIL. The Turks want to topple the Bashar al-Assad regime first. So if there is no change on this, the train and equip program in Turkey might not start,” the source said.
The official recalled that the train and equip program for Syrian armed opposition groups will start in the spring.
“I can assure you that the program will start in spring. But there are four sites. It is not necessary that the program will definitely start in all sites at the same time,” the offical said.
“We are trying to cooperate with the Turks in Syria despite the differences. This cooperation will be in Syria. If Turks take a step on the train and equip program, there might be a progress in the safe zone issue in Syria,” he added.
“We are concerned about the increasing influence of the al-Nusra Front in northern Syria. This is a war against ISIL, but al-Nusra is also a designated terrorist organization for us. We have some differences with the Turks also about the opposition groups’ gains in northern Syria. We agreed with them on the threat posed by the radical groups in Syria. But we don’t assess the situation on the ground from the same perspective. There are differences,” the source said.