UNDER PRESSURE from allies, the Obama administration appears to be creeping toward a correction of its strategy in Syria. If so — and officials stress that President Obama has made no decisions and none is imminent — the change would be welcome. The president has been counting on moderate Syrian forces to fight the Islamic State while refusing to address the threat those forces face from the regime of Bashar al-Assad. That policy has prompted Turkey to withhold vital cooperation and, more seriously, has risked the destruction of U.S. allies, who have been losing territory to both the Assad regime and Islamic extremist groups.
As reported by The Post and other news organizations, the plan under consideration would be incremental and probably too weak to decisively advance U.S. interests in Syria. But it might at least head off disaster. The Post’s Karen DeYoung reported that U.S. officials are discussing the creation of a de facto safe zone along the Turkish border, perhaps 20 miles deep and 100 miles long, that the rebels could hold with the help of U.S. and allied airstrikes and Turkish special forces. The border strip, which extends toward the besieged, Kurdish-held town of Kobane, is currently controlled by forces from the Islamic State. But the strategy would include deterring Syrian government aircraft from entering the area, shielding it from bombing raids.
The safe zone could allow the entry into Syria of political exiles attempting to set up a badly needed alternative to the Assad government. It could also give breathing room to the moderate Free Syrian Army. In recent weeks its forces in Aleppo have been hemmed in by the regime, which captured one of the two remaining road routes into rebel-held districts. Meanwhile, the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra front has captured parts of Idlib province, south and west of Aleppo, driving out Free Syrian Army forces.
Turkey, with whom senior U.S. officials have been negotiating the plan, could substantially step up its contribution to the war. U.S. warplanes would be allowed to operate out of Incirlik Air Base instead of traveling from the Persian Gulf, greatly increasing the time they could linger over battlefields in Syria and northern Iraq. Turkish special forces might play the role of spotters for bombers — filling another gap in the current operation.
The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been pressing for a more ambitious strategy, including a no-fly zone that would extend to Aleppo. That would be a much heavier blow to the Assad regime; it would entrench the moderate opposition in the country’s second-largest city and could force the serious negotiations about a post-Assad government that the Obama administration says it seeks.
White House hesitation is attributed to worries about being slowly sucked into Syria’s civil war, the radicalization of forces it supports or the pressure that might mount to deploy U.S. ground troops. While these dangers are real, they are more likely to materialize if Mr. Obama fails to remedy the weakness of his current policy. To eliminate the Islamic State, Syria must be stabilized under a new regime. The sooner the United States accepts that reality and takes steps to bring it about, the lower the risks and the cost.
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