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Turkey's Call For Buffer Along Border Could Drag U.S. Into Syria


Now that President Obama has vowed to destroy ISIS, he faces a deeper question. It's just how far he's willing to go.


The U.S. air campaign so far has been limited in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. ground presence is largely limited to trainers in Iraq.

GREENE: But the president faces pressure to do more, and his advisers have not entirely closed the door.

INSKEEP: So we'll talk now about one way the U.S. commitment could expand. The United States could end up protecting northern Syria, creating a buffer zone along the border with Turkey.

GREENE: That would protect Syrian refugees. It might also please Turkey, a vital U.S. ally. It would also, though, demand more of the U.S. military. NPR's David Welna explains.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Secretary of State John Kerry was asked earlier this month about establishing a buffer zone in northern Syria. His reply left the door open to doing so.


U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: If Syrian citizens can return to Syria and be protected in an area across the border, there's a lot that would commend that. But at the same time, you'd have to guarantee safety, guarantee there wouldn't be attacks by the government. Other kinds of things would have to happen. So it needs a thorough examination.We're all in favor of looking at this very closely.

WELNA: Still Kerry stopped short of endorsing the creation of a safe haven for Syrian refugees. But a number of lawmakers, both Democratic and Republican, are calling for a buffer zone. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin is one of them. The Michigan Democrat spoke last week at the U.S. Institute of Peace.


SENATOR CARL LEVIN: We should seek to establish a delineated buffer zone along the Turkish border in order to protect civilians, a zone which would be secured by Turkish boots on the ground, if Turkey is willing, protected by a coalition no-fly zone.

WELNA: It's not clear whether Turkey would be willing to put boots on the ground in Syria, just as it's not clear the U.S. really wants the job of enforcing a no-fly zone. Army General Lloyd Austin commands the U.S. military campaign in Iraq and Syria. Austin told reporters the first task for the U.S. is helping Iraq restore security and stability inside its borders.


GENERAL LLOYD AUSTIN: Whether or not we'll stand up a no-fly zone or do something different in Syria is a policy decision that I'll leave to the policymakers.

WELNA: A policy decision that could plunge the U.S. more deeply into Syria's civil war. Here's how - a buffer zone would require the U.S. to enforce a no-fly zone, potentially drawing it into a fight with Syria's military.

GORDON ADAMS: The principal target of a no-fly zone is going to be Syrian air capability, planes and helicopters and Syrian air defenses. That's a big step up in terms of American engagement.

WELNA: Gordon Adams oversaw defense budgets in the Clinton White House.

ADAMS: Asking for a buffer zone and a no-fly zone from the Turkish point of view is a clear attempt to draw the U.S. into confronting not only ISIS, but the Assad regime in Damascus.

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: This is potentially a doubling of the mission, it isn't just mission creep.

WELNA: That's Anthony Cordesman with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank. Although Syria's regime has not interfered with U.S. airstrikes targeting Islamic State fighters in Syria, Cordesman says there's no assurance it would go along with a no-fly zone. In fact Syrian officials last week warned that setting up a no-fly zone would be, what they called, a flagrant violation of international law. Cordesman says there's also the problem that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad has some powerful friends.

CORDESMAN: If we carry out a bombing campaign to destroy his air defenses, we find ourselves in a major confrontation with Russia, Iran and serious questions about the fighting.

WELNA: Such as, just who is the U.S. fighting in Syria, the Islamic State or the Assad regime? The Obama administration says its mission is limited to defeat and destroy the Islamic State. Calls to create a buffer zone in Syria show how that mission could escalate to a place war planners so far appear unwilling to go. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.