An ‘ISIS-free Zone’ Is Nothing but a Road to US Mission Creep

The US war against Isis is being fought on autopilot, with little thought given to whether our actions will hurt or help American interests in the long-run. This weeks’ agreement between the United States and Turkey to create an ill-defined “Isis-free zone” in the north of Syria is just the latest example of this problem. Not only will it fail to reconcile the vastly different goals sought by America and its allies, it also risks mission creep, increasing US involvement in the Syrian conflict with little chance of success.

According to US officials, the joint creation of a 68-mile Isis-free zone within Syria is supposed to provide a space where coalition airstrikes eliminate Isis forces and cede control to moderate Syrian rebels focused on combating Isis. It’s still unclear precisely what form this will take, and the confusion rises to the highest levels of Washington and Ankara. Turkish spokesmen, for example, have described it as a safe zone for refugees, a description refuted by US officials.

The US’ involvement in Syria displays no strategy, no boundaries and no clear goals. The only viable long-term solution to Syria’s problems is diplomacy.

US officials have also been clear that the agreement will not encompass a no-fly zone. Since Isis possesses no air power of any kind, the US has previously refused the demands of states like Turkey and Saudi Arabia to create a no-fly zone — similar to that put in place in Libya in 2011. A no-fly zone would prevent Assad from carrying out airstrikes, benefiting anti-government Syrian rebels, but would be extremely costly and bring the US into direct conflict with the Assad regime. Here we see a familiar conundrum: the United States says it is only engaged in fighting Isis, but its Middle Eastern allies also aim to overthrow the Assad regime.

The US refusal to impose a no fly-zone is a wise policy. There is no doubt that Bashar al-Assad’s regime is monstrous, but a violent overthrow would create a power vacuum which would primarily benefit Isis, al-Nusra and other extremist groups operating in Syria. This is where US wisdom begins to wane: even without a formal no-fly zone, the creation of a US-backed Isis-free zone moves us closer to direct confrontation with the Assad regime.

Furthermore, the ambiguity around the ‘Isis-free zone’ creates a clear risk of escalation. It’s unclear, for example, whether groups engaged in fighting the regime directly will be allowed to enter the zone and train there, or only those US-trained and equipped rebels focused on Isis. US officials have been keen to note that Assad’s forces have thus far yielded to American airstrikes elsewhere in Syria — choosing not to use their air defense system and avoiding areas the US is targeting — but that is no guarantee that they would refrain from attacking opposition groups sheltering inside a safe zone.

Part of this dangerous ambiguity arises out of irreconcilable differences between the US and its allies. Turkey likely intends the zone to act as a safe haven not only for refugees, but also for groups opposing the Assad regime, including extremist groups like al-Nusra. Whether intentional or not, this risks direct confrontation between US and Syrian forces, likely drawing the United States deeper into the Syrian quagmire.

It’s also worth taking a close look at Turkey’s motivation for finally agreeing to let the US use its territory to attack Isis, something it has long resisted. Though Ankara announced this week that it would begin to target Isis inside Syria, its bombing campaign so far immediately focused on targeting the PKK, Turkey’s Kurdish separatist group. The Erdogan government seems less concerned with Isis than it is with improving its electoral chances through a popular campaign against the PKK. Ironically, Kurdish forces within Syria are actually the only effective US-aligned, anti-Isis force on the ground.

This agreement is just one more sign that US leaders have no clear plan for how to tackle Isis in Syria and little leverage to get its supposed allies to cooperate. Recognizing that sending US troops to Syria would be dangerous and costly, the administration has opted for bombing raids alone. But while air strikes have undoubtedly killed many Isis members, they have made no substantial progress against the group due to a lack of viable on-the-ground support. New US-led military training programs have yielded only 60 fighters, while many of the groups involved in earlier CIA train-and-equip programs have collapsed in failure.

The creation of an Isis-free zone is merely the next step in a campaign of ever-increasing US involvement in Syria with no strategy, no boundaries and no clear goals. The only viable long-term solution to Syria’s problems is diplomacy. But that has been pushed to the side in favor of airstrikes and limited, ad hoc rebel training programs that the administration itself seems only marginally committed to.

Open-ended military campaigns like this — with no clear objectives other than destruction — are particularly prone to mission creep. The creation of a safe zone in northern Syria may sound good in principle, but it will only end up increasing the US’ involvement in Syria with little hope for success and a high risk of unintended consequences. America, of all countries, should know just how damaging such campaigns can be.

Emma Ashford is a visiting fellow with the Cato Institute.