National Security & Defense

Yes to a Syrian Safe Harbor

An F/18 Hornet during flight operations for Inherent Resolve aboard USS George H.W. Bush. (US Navy)
It would smash ISIS, bring Erdogan closer, and protect innocent civilians.

Reports suggest that President Obama is considering the delineation of a “safe zone” along part of Syria’s border with Turkey. According to the Wall Street Journal, Turkey’s President Erdogan is willing to deploy U.S. and Turkish air-attack controllers into Syria to direct operations against the Islamic State.

There are three key reasons why the U.S. should establish this safe harbor. First, a safe zone would provide major boosts to the campaign against the Islamic State. Turkish special forces aren’t equal to their American counterparts, but they are capable professionals. Turkish forces’ entrance in Syrian battlespace would help coalition pilots locate and eliminate Islamic State formations with far greater effect. As I noted last week, the impact of air strikes is catalyzed by a complementary ground effort. Moreover, by exerting greater control over the Turkey–Syrian border region, the coalition would reinforce anti-ISIS rebel units. At present, these CIA-mentored rebels are being overrun by attacks from the Islamic State, the al-Nusra Front, and the Syrian military. But with sanctuary from attack, they’d consolidate their supply lines from Turkey, project their military power into ISIS strongholds, and become more attractive to new recruits. With time and a safe haven, they’d be able to challenge ISIS’s domination of the Euphrates river system, which is the jihadis’ supply aorta. In this regard, a safe haven is a key ingredient in the plan to destroy the Islamic State.

Second, a safe zone is advisable because an actionable alliance with Turkey would draw Erdogan away from his destabilizing tendencies. As I’ve written previously, Erdogan’s political calculations in Syria are different from ours. Nevertheless, by deploying forces inside Assad’s territory, Erdogan would offer a buffer against growing Iranian influence in this struggle. This is an urgent concern. After all, the Syrian civil war is only one element of a deeper political crisis in the region. Yet, by bringing Erdogan into closer alignment with American policy, Obama would have greater influence over Erdogan on concerns involving the Kurds and Israel. To be sure, Erdogan is an unpredictable narcissist. Regardless, Obama must take this chance to moderate him.

Third, the establishment of a safe zone would allow the coalition to fulfill the urgent humanitarian need to better protect Kurdish civilians and other minorities. At present, these innocents are being slaughtered by ISIS, other Salafi-jihadist groups, and Bashar al-Assad. And whether we like it or not, American credibility is on the line in Syria: Our humanitarian efforts there are inextricably linked to our broader national security. This safe zone will allow us to save lives while reinforcing our position with allies.

Of course, there are risks here. Obama’s civilian advisers are about as astute on military strategy as molten lava is tolerant of ice cubes — meaning that they might recoil from the plan for a safe zone. Speaking on Monday, press secretary Josh Earnest pushed back against the notion of an imminent safe zone. This stance is largely due to the administration’s fears that Assad or Iran would retaliate. Still, if Obama threatens explicit action in the event of Assad’s interference, he could deter both Assad and Iran. Obama could point out, for instance, the fact that, located on one side of Damascus’s Umayyad Square, Syria’s Defense Ministry is isolated and vulnerable to destruction.

In the end, however, America’s security and that of our allies demands the efficient destruction of the Islamic State and an end to its westward and regional metastasis. This safe zone would support that objective. It requires President Obama’s support.

Tom Rogan, based in Washington, D.C., is a columnist for the Daily Telegraph and a contributor to The McLaughlin Group. He holds the Tony Blankley Chair at the Steamboat Institute and tweets @TomRtweets.

Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at

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