US, Turkey Planning “IS-Free Zone” in Syria

US, Turkey Planning “IS-Free Zone” in SyriaUS, Turkey Planning “IS-Free Zone” in Syria

The US and Turkey have agreed to work together to drive Islamic State militants from northern Syria, a senior US official said on Monday, as Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said its military could “change the balance” in the region.

“The goal is to establish an IS-free zone and ensure greater security and stability along Turkey’s border with Syria,” said the US official, who asked not to be named, AFP reported.

Details of the zone “remain to be worked out,” the official said, adding that “any joint military efforts will not include the imposition of a no-fly zone,” a longstanding Turkish demand.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says the creation of a “safe zone” would pave the way for the return of Syrian refugees.

It would however entail Turkey, NATO’s only mainly Muslim member, supporting US “partners on the ground” already fighting IS extremists.

The potentially game-changing accord was revealed as Turkey fueled the growing anger of its Kurdish minority by shelling a Kurdish-held village in northern Syria as its warplanes continued to pound the Kurdistan Workers’ Party positions in northern Iraq.

But many question whether Turkey is more interested in limiting Kurdish capabilities in Syria and Iraq than tackling IS.

 NATO Backing

NATO’s North Atlantic Council was meeting Tuesday after Turkey called for special talks amid heightened concerns over its security.

In his opening statement, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg offered his condolences to the victims of recent terror attacks in Turkey.

“Terrorism can never be tolerated or justified; we stand in strong solidarity with our ally.”

Turkey made its request for Tuesday’s special session under Article 4 of NATO’s founding treaty, which allows countries to ask for consultations when they believe their territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened.

It is only the fifth time in NATO history that members will meet under Article 4, NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said.

“North Atlantic Council has been called for a meeting by Turkey (this) week … with a view to informing our allies about the measures we are taking and the operations we are conducting against terrorism, as well as to holding consultations with them.”

Earlier this week, Stoltenberg cautioned Ankara about burning bridges with the Kurds.

“For years there has been progress to try to find a peaceful political solution. It is important not to renounce that ... because force will never solve the conflict in the long term.”

The Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, which routed IS from the Syrian flashpoint of Kobane early this year with the help of US-backed airstrikes, said Turkish tanks hit its positions and those of allied Arab rebels overnight in Zur Maghar Village in Aleppo Province.

Ankara is concerned that the success in northern Syria of the YPG militia will stoke separatist sentiment among its own Kurds and embolden the PKK.

 Deal With US

Turkey has given the US the greenlight to use its Incirlik Air Base to attack IS after months of tough negotiations.

Davutoglu said Ankara’s demands for a no-fly zone were addressed “to a certain extent,” according to the Hurriyet daily.

“Air cover is important, the air protection for the Free Syrian Army and other moderate elements fighting IS.

“If we will not send ground forces, and that we will not do, then certain elements that cooperate with us on the ground must be protected.”

The cross-border violence has sent tensions soaring in Turkey, with police using water cannon to disperse nightly protests in Istanbul and other major cities against IS and the government’s policies on Syria.

Davutoglu ordered the airstrikes and artillery barrages after IS violence spilled over into Turkey last Monday with a devastating suicide bombing in a town close to the Syrian border that killed 32 people.

 1,000 Suspects Detained

Turkey has detained 1,050 people suspected of having links to the IS and the PKK in recent days, Davutoglu said on Monday.

Davutoglu, who made the comments in a televised interview, added that 50 to 60 of those detained are foreign nationals.

The PKK has been fighting for independence since 1984 and is feared to be making gains.

The group is considered a terrorist organization by the US, but PKK forces have come to the aid of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters who have been fighting IS in northern Iraq.

Turkey’s crackdown on suspected militants, in which the ultra-leftist DHKP-C group is also being targeted, comes after a week of deadly attacks on Turkish soldiers and police officers.