The Obama administration is weighing the opening of a new front in the air war against the Islamic State in Syria, part of an offensive to push back militants along the western portion of Syria’s border with Turkey and create a relatively safe zone for U.S.-backed Syrian rebel forces to move in.
Under the plan, U.S. aircraft flying from Turkey’s Incirlik air base would target positions the militants currently hold along the border north of Aleppo, eastward toward the besieged town of Kobane. Turkish special forces would move into the area to assist targeting and help Syrian opposition fighters consolidate their hold on the territory.
President Obama, who has not yet approved the proposal, was briefed on its outline at a meeting with his senior national security advisers last Wednesday.
The plan, which was developed over the past several weeks during extensive meetings between U.S. and Turkish diplomatic and military officials, also was a subject of discussion between Vice President Biden and Turkey’s top political leaders during Biden’s visit to Istanbul 10 days ago.
The proposal would at least partly address Turkey’s long-standing desire for a protected buffer zone inside Syria along the entire 511-mile border, while providing the faltering rebel fighters with a much-needed boost.
In exchange, U.S. access to Incirlik for use of manned warplanes and armed drones throughout Syria would add as many as six hours to the amount of time that individual strike aircraft could spend “on station,” locating and reaching targets. Aircraft currently striking Islamic State positions in northern and eastern Syria fly from bases in the Persian Gulf, a distance of about 1,000 miles.
“That access is huge,” a U.S. official said. At the same time, having Turkish special forces on the ground inside Syria would not only “breathe life into the Free Syrian Army,” but also provide “more capable folks to help with targeting” for airstrikes.
Right now, the official said, targets are pinpointed with surveillance by unarmed aircraft flying from Incirlik and other bases in the region, and friendly Syrian “dudes with cellphones” on the ground. The official, who was not authorized to discuss the plan, described it on condition of anonymity. A spokesman for the National Security Council declined to comment on the proposal and last week’s meeting with Obama.
If implemented, the plan would require significantly more U.S. resources than are now devoted to the fight against the Islamic State in Syria, including more planes and more money. Congress is debating both the funding and new authorization for operations in Syria and Iraq that have already been approved by the President.
Although officials said the proposal is not intended to establish a traditional no-fly zone requiring constant patrols against other aircraft entering the area — potentially up to 100 miles long and 20 miles deep inside Syria — its proponents recognize the potential for a “slippery slope” into a far more major operation.
Part of the administration’s risk assessment is whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will continue to allow overflights of his territory without activating Syrian air defenses, as he has with American aircraft now striking the Islamic State in areas largely to the east of the proposed new front.
“Up to now, it’s been uncoordinated deconfliction,” the U.S. official said. “It’s not as though Centcom calls up the Syrians every morning and says, ‘Don’t go where we’re going.’ ” The U.S. Central Command is in charge of American military operations in Syria and Iraq.