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U.S., Turkey Plan To Create 'Islamic State Free Zone' Along Syrian Border


The United States and Turkey are finalizing plans to create a so-called Islamic-State-free zone inside Syria along the Turkish border. The goal is to push out ISIS fighters and allow Syrian refugees to return to their country from Turkey and to provide a base for U.S.-trained Syrian rebels to fight ISIS. NPR's Tom Bowman has been at the Pentagon today and joins me now. And Tom, let's start with this idea of an ISIS-free zone. Talk a bit about what that would mean exactly.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Melissa, first of all, U.S. officials say much of this area inside Syria along the Turkish border already is in the hands of rebels fighting the Islamic State or ISIS. Now, there's a swath of territory - it's roughly 68 miles long - that's still under ISIS control. And that's the area the U.S. and Turkey want to make ISIS-free. Now, they hope to isolate this part of the border and prevent ISIS from getting weapons, recruits, money through Turkey into Syria, and this would sort of contain ISIS, kind of make it wither on the vine. They'd have no access to the outside world.

BLOCK: When they talk about isolating this border area, how exactly would that work?

BOWMAN: Well, for the first time, the U.S. would be able to fly attack aircraft out of as many as three Turkish bases. That would put U.S. planes much closer to ISIS strongholds in Syria. Right now, they fly out of other bases in the Middle East much farther away.

Now, at the same time, dozens of U.S.-trained Syrian rebels who are anti-ISIS have already started to cross the border from Turkey into Syria. They join other fighters and help secure that area. And I'm told these U.S.-trained rebels would likely be working with the U.S. to call in airstrikes. And the Turkish military, meanwhile, has started firing artillery and tank rounds into Syria from their side of the border, so it's really an increased effort all around.

BLOCK: Tom, help us understand something that's confusing here because the Turkish government and Syrian opposition leaders, for that matter, have long been pushing for a no-fly zone along the border with Syria. This, apparently, is not that, right? They're calling this a safe zone or an ISIS-free zone. What's the distinction?

BOWMAN: Well, first of all, this is not a no-fly zone. And a no-fly zone means just that. The U.S. would not allow any aircraft - a warplane, a surveillance aircraft, even a helicopter - to fly in a given area. But ISIS doesn't even have an air force or any kind of aircraft. So what Turkey had long wanted was the U.S. to create a no-fly zone against the Assad government in Syria. The U.S. said no. It said, we're fighting ISIS; we don't want to - we want a negotiated settlement with Assad. We don't want to fight Assad. So the ISIS-free zone would use U.S. and other attack aircraft to target ISIS fighters in that area and, again, allow Syrian refugees to return home and, of course, allow rebel fighters to remain in that area and secure it.

BLOCK: Let's talk about numbers briefly here, Tom. The Pentagon has acknowledged there are just about 60 of these U.S.-trained and vetted rebel fighters that they say would be the ground force for this plan - doesn't sound like a very robust force - 60 fighters.

BOWMAN: It's not. It's been pretty embarrassing. The U.S. military planners had hoped to have hundreds, if not thousands, of fighters trained by now or by the end of the year. They've had a lot of trouble vetting these fighters. They said others have quit because they said, listen; we don't want to fight ISIS. We want to fight the Assad regime. But the Pentagon officials, listen; we're increasing the training efforts in hope to have hundreds more trained to go in soon. But they acknowledge this training effort so far has been something of a disappointment.

BLOCK: And what's the timeframe? When would this push to create an ISIS-free zone begin?

BOWMAN: Well, discussions are still ongoing with Turkey. I'm told the White House could make a decision this week, and then these American aircraft could start flying out of Turkish bases in the next few weeks. So it's all coming to a head pretty quickly here.

BLOCK: Are you hearing any concern about an escalation of the U.S. involvement in this area, Tom?

BOWMAN: Well, not really. I mean, the big concern is having troops on the ground. That's not going to happen. The president has said, in Iraq and Syria, no U.S. boots on the ground. You'll probably see, of course, more aircraft - drones and attack aircraft - in these Turkish bases. That would be the only escalation we're talking about.

BLOCK: OK. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman - Tom, thanks.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
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