US, Turkish plans to develop ISIS-free areas firming up

US, Turkish plans to develop ISIS-free areas firming up
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Potential U.S. and Turkish plans to develop areas in Syria free of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are firming, according to defense officials.

The move would portend a new phase in the war against the terrorist group, and could see deepening U.S. involvement in Syria. 

The plans would entail American aircraft, Syrian rebels and Turkish forces working together to sweep ISIS from a 60-mile long strip of northern Syria along the Turkish border, according to The New York Times.

The area would then be controlled by moderate Syrian rebels and act as a "safe zone" for Syrians displaced by ISIS and regime forces. 

Both Democratic and Republican senators applauded the news.  

Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinTrump throws support behind criminal justice bill Schumer reelected as Senate Democratic Leader Criminal justice reform faces a make-or-break moment MORE (D-Ill.), the Senate's second highest ranking Democrat, called it "encouraging news," noting that more than 200,000 Syrians have been killed in the country's three-year civil war, many of them children, and that more than 12 million are in need of humanitarian assistance.  

"The announcement of a provisional safe zone along Syria’s border with Turkey is encouraging news — the United States must continue to work with our allies in the region to help the civilian victims whose lives and homes are being destroyed by this conflict," Durbin said.

Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineOvernight Defense: What the midterms mean for defense panels | Pompeo cancels North Korea meeting | Trump eyes Kim summit in early 2019 | Pentagon drops name for border mission Five takeaways from a divisive midterm election GOP to retain Senate majority MORE (D-Va.) said he hoped that the zone would “with additional measures, could become a protected zone for internally displaced Syrians and the approximately 1.8 million Syrian refuges who have fled into Turkey.”

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenators return to Washington intent on action against Saudis Bill to protect Mueller blocked in Senate McConnell: Mueller probe should be allowed to finish MORE (R-S.C.) called Turkey’s increased military assistance a “step in the right direction.” 

“The establishment of a humanitarian zone is consistent with what I have been advocating for in Syria for over three years,” he said. 

The zone would be between the city of Aleppo and the Euphrates River, which encompasses areas that Syrian helicopters regularly bomb, the Times reported.

Pentagon officials said the U.S. and Turkish officials are still working out the details of the agreement, which would also allow coalition planes to use Turkish airbases for manned operations against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Turkish air forces have also struck ISIS in Syria in recent days.

Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said the plans would be finalized "in weeks, not days," and subject to approval by Defense Secretary Ash Carter.

"This is still an ongoing process with the Turkish government. We're working out the final details of that, it's an active conversation, and Secretary Carter will make the final determination on if and when we do any operations out of Turkey, and that's something we expect to be measured in a period of weeks, not days, if and when it happens," he said.  

He also said it "certainly is reasonable" to conclude that coalition airstrikes against ISIS would increase.  

Turkey has long-pushed for some kind of buffer zone in Syria to protect Syrian civilians and relieve its intake of refugees, but the U.S. has resisted, due to the possibility of being dragged into a war with Syrian regime forces, who have sophisticated air defenses. 

The U.S. has so far tried to restrict its airstrikes and training of Syrian rebels to going after ISIS targets only. However, Turkey and Syrian rebels both see Syrian President Bashar Assad as a greater threat than ISIS, and have pushed for more U.S. involvement.  

It is unclear if such a zone is established, what responsibility the U.S. or coalition partners would have in attacking Syrian regime forces who entered the zone, or attacked Syrians inside the zone. 

Defense Secretary Ash Carter acknowledged earlier this month that the U.S. would have some responsibility to protect the Syrian rebels it is training as they head into battle, but said how they would be protected is still being decided. 

There are also concerns over Turkey's airstrikes against Kurdish fighters in Iraq and Syria — which the U.S.-led coalition has been partnering with in both places. 

Turkey sees the Kurdish forces, who are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers' Party — a separatist group in Turkey, as a threat. 

U.S. officials say those airstrikes are not part of the agreement, but have refrained from criticizing Turkey. 

"Turkey's got a right to defend itself, and and the PKK has been involved in very recent terrorist attacks in Turkey," Davis said. "We respect our NATO ally's right to defend itself." 

Graham, a presidential candidate, criticized reports of Turkey bombing Kurdish-held villages in Syria — saying that would only help ISIS and the Assad regime. 

In his statement, he said, "if reports that Turkey has bombed Kurdish-held villages in Syria are true, the President’s feckless approach to fighting ISIL is again showing its consequences,” he said. 

“I urge the president to come up with a regional coordinated strategy that would decisively deal with both ISIL and Assad to stop the bloodletting in Syria,” he said, using another name for ISIS. 

“Our ineffective approach to Syria and Iraq continues to throw the region into chaos and is creating the perfect launching pad for an attack on the United States,” he said.