Turkey airstrikes against ISIS: New effort to create Syrian ‘safe zones’

Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu endorsed the concept of 'safe zones' Saturday as Turkish fighter jets attacked ISIS targets in northern Syria. 

Associated Press/AP
Turkish soldiers patrol near the border with Syria, ouside the village of Elbeyli, east of the town of Kilis, southeastern Turkey, Friday, July 24, 2015.

Turkey and the US have agreed to launch a military action plan to clear the Turkish-Syrian border of militant groups and create what will become ‘safe zones’ or ‘Islamic State (ISIS) free zones.’

Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu made the announcement Saturday as Turkish fighter jets continue to attack ISIS targets in northern Syria, Reuters reports.

"When areas in northern Syria are cleared of the [ISIS] threat, the safe zones will be formed naturally," Mr. Cavusoglu told a news conference. "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 US refuses to call the targeted areas "security or safe zones" so the Syrian government won’t mistake its plan for targeting its own fighters, reports Turkey’s Huriyyet Daily News. Instead, the reclaimed territories will be referred to as "ISIL-free zones," referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – the US-government's preferred term for the group.

Turkey has long objected to Washington's prioritization of fighting ISIS over toppling the Syrian regime. But following months of negotiations, Turkey agreed to join the US-led coalition against the militant group after it killed 32 in a bomb attack in the Turkish city of Suruc on Monday.

On Thursday, Turkey gave the US-led coalition control of its airbase near the Syrian border to launch airstrikes against the terrorist group, in what has been seen by some observers as a ‘game-changer’ in Washington’s fight against ISIS.

Turkey also launched its first aerial campaign against the militant group early Friday as a response to intelligence that suggested an ISIS attack had been planned on its border. According to Reuters, police have been raiding cities and towns across the country hunting for suspected Islamist and Kurdish militants and have detained nearly 600 people as of Saturday.

Allying with the US in its fight against ISIS could benefit Turkey's political goals in several ways. 

The country had already boosted its military presence along its border after ISIS fighters began to advance to northwestern Syria, local sources say. If the terrorist group had its way, it would be able to defeat Syrian rebels holding the land and send a fresh refugee influx towards Turkey, which already hosts almost 2 million displaced Syrians, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

But under this new plan, the US and Turkey would deploy pro-Western Syrian rebels to areas completely cleared of ISIS militants, who would both prevent Kurdish fighters from gaining territory along the border and "create a safe environment for either sheltering Syrians fleeing violence or those who want to return to their homelands," reports Huriyyet Daily News

However, that wouldn’t leave much hope for the Kurdish peace process.

In 2012, Turkey began peace talks with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade insurgency against the country. But as Ankara continues to attack the PKK in Iraq, critics accuse Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan of utilizing the latest campaign against ISIS as an excuse to crack down on Kurdish fighters in Syria as well, Reuters reports.

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