Less than 48 hours after American officials said the US had agreed to the outlines of a Turkish plan for “safe zones” in northern Syria, three “senior Administration officials” have issued a denial in a conference call with journalists.
On Monday, The Washington Post reported, from its official sources, that the US would back Ankara’s plan for a safe haven of about 110 km (about 68 miles) in Aleppo Province along the Turkish border, extending 40 to 50 km (25 to 31 miles) inside Syria. The sources stopped short of calling the area a declared no-fly zone.
The US acceptance of the safe zone appeared to follow Ankara’s permission for the US-led aerial coalition against the Islamic State to operate from the Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey.
However, on Tuesday the State Department arranged a conference call with the senior Administration officials at “relatively short notice” to knock back the report.
The officials emphasized that the US objective was confined to pushing back the Islamic State, rather than providing protection for civilians and rebels against the Assad regime’s airstrikes. One said:
We’re not out there staking out zones and doing some things that I know have been discussed in years past – no-fly zones…[or] safe zones. What we’re trying to do is clear ISIL.
On Monday, a “White House official” told a closed-door meeting at the Middle East Institute in Washington that there would be no safe zone, according to two members of the audience.
The Obama administration is sending a delegation to Turkey next week to discuss the exact nature of the cooperation along the northern Syria border, the official said.
The latest statements continue a week of confusing, back-and-forth remarks by senior officials. Last Thursday, President Obama’s envoy for the campaign against the Islamic State, said a no-fly zone in Syria was “off the table”. But on Saturday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, commenting on the US-Ankara agreement on Incirlik, stressed:
When areas in northern Syria are cleared of the [Islamic State] threat, the safe zones will be formed naturally. We have always defended safe zones and no-fly zones in Syria. People who have been displaced can be placed in those safe zones.
The next day, the Washington Post article appeared to give US endorsement of Cavusoglu’s declaration.