The U.S. needs Turkey to join the fight against the Islamic State. But Turkey won't do it without dragging the U.S. deeper into Syria's civil war.
The White House and its allies are pressing Turkey to join the military fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State as the terrorist organization continues fighting for a complete conquest of the Syrian border town of Kobani. But Turkey has drawn a line in the sand: Unless the United States and its coalition partners create a "buffer zone" along the Syrian-Turkish border, it’s planning to sit this one out.
The Obama administration appears to be moving closer to accepting Ankara’s demand. Secretary of State John Kerry said last week that creating a buffer zone was an idea worth examining. On Sunday, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told ABC’s This Week that he anticipated that "there could be circumstances in the future where that would be part of the campaign."
Capitol Hill is also stepping up its pressure on the Obama administration. Michigan’s Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Wednesday that he believed the United States should "seek to establish a delineated buffer zone along the Turkish border to protect civilians, secured by Turkish boots on the ground and protected by a coalition no-fly zone."
When asked at the State Department on Wednesday about the possibility of creating a buffer zone, retired Gen. John Allen, the U.S. special envoy for the anti-Islamic State coalition, said the allies would "consider all means necessary to provide" for the Syrian rebel force it plans to train to fight the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS and ISIL.
"I think it’s too early to tell specifically with regard to a term or an effect," he said.
Meanwhile, Turkey indicated it might offer more support to the fight, agreeing late last week that it would be willing to allow the training of at least 2,000 Syrian opposition fighters on Turkish soil. U.S. officials said Turkey had also agreed to allow the United States to use Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey to launch attacks against the Islamic militant group, but Turkey quickly denied these reports, and continued to push for a no-fly zone before it got any further involved.
The debate around creating a buffer zone or a no-fly zone is a complicated one for the White House because at its heart is the more fundamental question of whether the United States wants to confront Syrian President Bashar al-Assad directly.
Creating a no-fly zone along the Syrian-Turkish border that could serve as a refuge for civilians fleeing the Islamic State and a training ground for members of the Syrian opposition would most likely mean taking out Syrian air defense systems and possibly taking on its air force. That could result in significant numbers of Syrian military fatalities — and potentially American ones.
That type of fight would also run the risk of setting back the fight against the Islamic State, as the United States and its coalition members would essentially be fighting a war on two fronts. The Syrian military has not interfered with U.S. airstrikes against terrorist targets in eastern and northern Syria, but that could change if U.S. airplanes also start bombing Syrian targets.
"It’s not a debate simply over a no-fly zone. It’s a debate over whether Turkey can push the U.S. and other members of the coalition into focusing on Assad directly, as well as on the Islamic State," said Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The debate is further complicated because different officials mean different things when they throw around the terms "buffer zone" and "no-fly zone." There could be a scenario where Assad tacitly allows the creation of a buffer zone — perhaps presented as a humanitarian corridor — to avoid picking a fight with the United States. In that circumstance, Cordesman said, "You don’t have to fly constant combat air patrols and be ready to suppress land-based surface-to-air missiles on short notice."
On the other end of the spectrum is a classic no-fly zone, which requires an upfront bombing campaign against Syrian air defense systems and related targets as well as continuing operations designed to shoot down any Syrian helicopters or warplanes that fly into the protected area.
Retired Gen. Carter Ham, who until April 2013 served as head of U.S. Africa Command, has warned that creating a no-fly zone is a "violent combat action that results in lots of casualties and increased risk to our own personnel.
"We should make no bones about it: It first entails killing a lot of people and destroying the Syrian air defenses and those people who are manning those systems. And then it entails destroying the Syrian air force, preferably on the ground, in the air if necessary," he said on CBS’s Face the Nation Sept. 28.
The longest-lasting no-fly zone enforced by the United States was in Iraq following the Persian Gulf War. Forces from the United States, the United Kingdom, and France enforced it over northern Iraq from 1991 to 2003 to protect the Kurdish population there from attacks by the Iraqi military. A separate no-fly zone was maintained in southern Iraq to protect the Shiite population from retaliation by the Iraqi military. It cost the U.S. government roughly $700 million a year to maintain the southern no-fly zone in Iraq, according to the Congressional Research Service. Both missions involved "constant patrols over a relatively large geographic area, punctuated by occasional strikes against Iraqi air defense sites."
Dempsey laid out his own concerns about creating a new no-fly zone, this time in Syria, last summer in a letter to Levin.
Like Ham, Dempsey described a risky operation that came with major costs, including the loss of U.S. aircraft, which would require the military to send in personnel recovery forces.
"We would require hundreds of ground and sea-based aircraft, intelligence and electronic warfare support, and enablers for refueling and communications," Dempsey said then.
He estimated that it would cost $500 million initially, and average as much as $1 billion per month over the course of a year.
Dempsey also laid out the costs and benefits of a buffer zone along the border with Turkey or Jordan, saying it would require a limited no-fly zone.
The risks of a buffer zone "are similar to the no-fly zone with the added problem of regime surface fires into the zones, killing more refugees due to their concentration," he said.
However, the debate last summer was not focused on the Islamic State, which wasn’t on anyone’s radar, and instead focused on what could be done to aid the Syrian rebels in their fight against Assad. Since then, the United States and coalition members have flown daily airstrikes in Syria for more than three weeks with no interference from the Syrian military.
But even if a potential buffer zone is not used to support an effort to counter Assad, the United States and its allies would feel compelled to limit the risk to its pilots and aircraft and would therefore need to be sure Syrian air defense systems were unable to target them, said Elizabeth Quintana, who runs the Air Power and Technology program at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
During operations in Libya in 2011, the amount of firepower used was much greater than the threat posed by the Libyan air defenses, which were not particularly sophisticated, Quintana said. But because it was a "discretionary operation," the threshold for risk was much lower.
The United States and its allies used Tomahawk missiles to take out any air defense systems and the air command and control nodes, even when they were defunct, she said. "U.S. and allied forces wanted to be absolutely sure that they weren’t going to pose a threat."
She said the same circumstances pertain to Syria, where military and political leaders would not want to risk losing U.S. personnel or aircraft.
But unlike Libya, Syria has sophisticated Russian-made air defense systems, mostly in and around Damascus and along the country’s western border, Quintana said.
The Pentagon has said those systems have been "passive" during the last few weeks of airstrikes against Islamic State targets in eastern and northern Syria.
But the U.S. Air Force took no chances when it targeted Aleppo, farther west. For that operation, it used its stealth jet, the F-22 Raptor, a combat debut for the aircraft.
"I’m sure it was in part to get in and out of Aleppo without being targeted, but also to send a message to Syrian and Russian officials to say they could use F-22s with impunity over Russian [surface-to-air-missiles]," Quintana said.