GAZIANTEP, Turkey — Mohamed Jlelati is not sure whether a de facto “safe zone” along the Turkey-Syria border will include his home town. But he is preparing for it. anyway.
Jlelati is a member of the Syrian opposition’s local government in Aleppo, about 40 miles from the Turkish border. And he has plans for his city.
“If people have water and electricity, they will feel stable,” he said, sketching out Aleppo’s water and power grids on a piece of paper. “Then you can provide food. And then start cleaning up the rubble.”
U.S. and Turkish officials last month announced a landmark deal to fight the Islamic State, the militant group that has seized large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria.
The agreement allows the United States to launch aircraft from inside Turkey for swifter strikes against militants. It also envisions an area along the border that is free of extremists and protected by U.S. air power. Turkey hopes the zone will be a haven for the millions of Syrians who have fled across the border into its territory.
But while news of the deal has spurred hope among Syrians, neither the United States nor Turkey has offered details on how such a zone would be established and enforced. In the past two weeks, the Islamic State and al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, have launched attacks in the area where the United States and Turkey hope to establish the zone. Analysts say that any plans for a buffer zone will fail unless there is a will to organize, administer and police the region.
“I don’t think we will see anything approaching what even resembles a safe zone” in Syria, said Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
“If you’re going to have significant numbers of people sheltering in the zone, you’ll need various things — like electricity, fuel, water tanks, piping, clinics,” Sayigh said. But instead of planning for large humanitarian or reconstruction operations, Turkey and the United States are “mostly trying to do PR” for an unworkable plan, he said.
International law says safe zones should be neutral areas that are free of combatants and where civilians are guaranteed protection. American officials have said, however, that the zone — which they envision stretching 68 miles long and 40 miles deep, reaching the outskirts of Aleppo — will be a staging ground for U.S.-backed rebels battling the Islamic State. The administration will not declare it a protected area, the officials said. This is likely to undermine Turkey’s goal of establishing a haven for Syrian refugees.
The ambiguity of the mission has highlighted concerns about the United States’ growing involvement in the Syrian conflict, which is estimated to have killed more than 230,000 people since 2011, the year it began.
The United States has so far played a limited role, training a handful of Syrian rebels who it says were vetted for ties to extremists. The rebels are meant to eject extremists from the designated buffer zone and then police the area, under round-the-clock cover from U.S. warplanes and Turkish artillery.
But even the bare-bones plan to provide air cover to the moderate rebels is problematic, analysts say.
This month, Jabhat al-Nusra captured a number of Syrian rebels from a U.S.-backed unit, including five directly trained by the United States. According to U.S. officials, the unit is no longer operating as a cohesive force, and many of its members have returned to Turkey.
U.S. officials say they are working on plans for a zone that is free of an Islamic State presence. But it is still unclear how the U.S.-trained Syrian force, given its small size and challenges on the battlefield, fits into that plan.
Some officials have pointed to the U.S. role in the fight for the Syrian-Kurdish city of Kobane as a model for how American air power can be used to assist capable Syrian rebel forces on the ground. There, Syrian Kurdish militias battled the Islamic State with support from U.S. fighter jets. After months of fighting, the militants were driven out. But the airstrikes devastated the city. Very few residents have returned.
“This area will not be a safe zone” if the model is Kobane, said an activist who spoke on the condition that he be identified only as Abdo. He worked with the local council in the Syrian city of Bab and said he is wanted by the Islamic State. Bab is about 25 miles northeast of Aleppo and is controlled by the extremist group.
Turkey has also supported more extremist rebel groups as a bulwark against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a policy that U.S. officials view with concern. Turkish media have reported that the government in Ankara wants the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham organization to police the eastern part of Aleppo province. Analysts say the United States is unlikely to work with the group, which has coordinated with Jabhat al-Nusra on the battlefield. This week, Ahrar al-Sham issued a statement endorsing the creation of a buffer zone.
“The safe zone will have positive effects from humanitarian, military, and political perspectives,” the group said in a statement. It did not mention the role of the United States.
Still, “there will never be a [U.S.] policy to provide direct air support for them,” said Aaron Stein, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, referring to Ahrar al-Sham.
“The plan is nebulous. The area is huge; it’s not well-defined,” Stein said of the buffer-zone proposal. “There may be local governance structures set up” in the zone, he said, “but it’s not a textbook safe zone.”
Indeed, questions about the zone’s neutrality may hinder aid efforts, particularly those of major organizations such as the United Nations, experts said. Syrian nonprofit entities and local councils are likely to shoulder the burden of caring for displaced Syrians, but they may be overwhelmed.
More than 12 million people across Syria need humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations. And more than 7 million are internally displaced. But activists and local council members hope they can provide the foundation for civil governance in areas encompassed by the buffer zone.
“We must gain the people’s trust again,” said Abdo, the activist.
He now lives in the Turkish city of Kilis, where he still meets regularly with members of Bab’s council, now operating in exile. Many of them fled Bab when the Islamic State took over in fall 2013. They still coordinate for when they might eventually return home.
“We ran the city for more than a year before [the Islamic State] came,” Abdo said. “We can do it again.”
Update: The headline on this article has been corrected. The U.S. government has said it will work to create a “buffer zone” in northern Syria; the United States has not said it will create a “safe zone,” although that term has been widely used by others.
Rami Zayat in Gaziantep and Missy Ryan in Washington contributed to this report.