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Syrian 'safe' zone: What does that really mean?

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Murad Sezer/Reuters

(Read caption) A Turkish military vehicle leaves from the Dag military post, which was attacked by Islamic State militants on Thursday, on the Turkish-Syrian border near Kilis, Turkey, July 24, 2015. Turkish warplanes pounded Islamic State targets in Syria and police detained hundreds of suspected militants across Turkey on Friday, a sign that Ankara may have shed its hesitancy in taking a front-line role against jihadist fighters. Turkey has long been a reluctant partner in the US-led coalition against Islamic State, emphasising the need to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and saying Syrian Kurdish forces also pose a grave security threat.

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The United States and Turkey, who are NATO allies, appear to finally be on the same page when it comes to fighting the self-styled Islamic State. Following an IS massacre of 32 ethnic Kurds on the Turkish side of the Syrian border last week, Ankara carried out a round of arrests of IS militants inside the country, began airstrikes against IS targets inside Syria, and at long last opened up its Incirlik air base to US warplanes, which will give pilots substantially more time over targets.

But appearances can be deceiving. Turkey continues to see the removal of Syria's Bashar al-Assad from power as a greater priority than fighting IS. It's also alarmed at the emerging Kurdish-governed enclave in Syria, mirroring the de facto independent status of Iraq's Kurds and acting as a beacon to Turkey's own restive Kurdish minority.

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Even as Turkey began conducting sorties against IS in Syria, it launched attacks on encampments in Iraqi Kurdistan of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group that wants a Kurdish homeland carved out of southern Turkey. The region's Kurds have proved among the most effective and committed fighters against IS expansion, and have received substantial US support.

And trouble could be brewing in this regard. A US official whose name was not disclosed told the Associated Press and other news services today that the US plans to work with Turkey to create what he called an "Islamic State-free zone" along Syria's border with Turkey, though he insisted that this would not include imposing a no-fly zone on the area.

But the area in question is largely in the hands of Kurdish fighters, most from Syria but some from Iraq and Turkey, who have largely been creating an Islamic State-free zone on their own. While the US is happy to support that development, Turkey seems to want to supplant the Kurdish fighters with Syrian forces friendlier to its own interests – namely Sunni Arab forces.

Kurdish fighters have vowed to fight Turkish forces if they invade the region. Meanwhile, Turkey is increasing its bellicose rhetoric toward the Kurds.

"There is no difference between PKK and Daesh. You can't say that PKK is better because it is fighting Daesh," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said at a press conference in Lisbon today, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State. He dismissed Kurdish forces as fighting "for power, not for peace, not for security." The PKK has carried out terrorist attacks inside Turkey in the past and could do so again if it feels threatened by Ankara.

Declaring an area a "safe zone" but not controlling the air space is a risky proposition. For now, Assad's forces have focused on fighting around the coastal regions that are far more important to his survival than the areas – the so-called "safe zone" – that are dominated by Sunni Islamists and ethnic Kurds. But if at some point Syria started dropping its notorious barrel bombs on population centers in the declared safe zones, it's hard to imagine how the US could avoid getting drawn into creating and patrolling a no-fly zone, having promised security.

The no-fly zone imposed over Kurdish northern Iraq after the first Gulf War was instrumental in creating the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government. Turkey would view a similar situation along the border as a political catastrophe, and a greater risk to its interests than the persistence of the Assad regime.

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To sum up: The US is bombing IS to help the Kurds – whom it views as allies – and the government in Baghdad. The US is generally avoiding attacks on the Syrian regime as a lesser of two evils. Turkey, meanwhile, is enthusiastically bombing the Kurds and only reluctantly going after IS, while lusting to set its sets on the government in Damascus. Turkey doesn't trust Baghdad and its burgeoning military relationship with Iran.

The Sunni Arab monarchies in the US coalition also can't stand the Baghdad government, which they view as oppressing the country's Sunni Arab minority, and are far less interested in fighting IS than Assad's government, which they view as an Iranian proxy that is oppressing Syria's Sunni Arab majority. Iran wants to destroy the Islamic State, particularly in Iraq, but the Islamic Republic and its Hezbollah allies from Lebanon also desperately want to shore up the Syrian regime.

The Islamic State wants to slaughter everyone who doesn't agree with them. The Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, though slightly more restrained than the cartoonishly savage IS fighters, feels likewise. Meanwhile, the trickle of Free Syrian Army fighters the US is training aren't fighting anyone much at all, at least not yet. 

It's hard to see anything approaching a "safe zone."