When the U.S. and Turkey announced on July 23 that they were joining forces to establish a “safe zone” in northern Syria, no one could quite figure out what they meant. With the White House denying that the deal required it to send in troops to seal the zone off or warplanes to patrol the skies, Bloomberg’s Josh Rogin wrote that the whole thing was misnomer: “In fact, there is really no ‘zone,’ and there is no plan to keep the area ‘safe.’”
Indeed, Rogin said, three “senior administration officials” had put together a conference call in order to assure reporters that there were no plans “for a safe zone, a no-fly zone, an air-exclusionary zone, a humanitarian buffer zone, or any other protected zone of any kind.” So if that wasn’t the plan, what on earth was it?
Now we know. The purpose of the non-zone zone that Turkey and the U.S. may or may not wish to establish is to give the former a free hand to bomb the Kurds and the latter an opportunity to engage in joint operations with Al Qaeda.
The proof? A front-page article in the Aug. 1 New York Times reporting that a U.S.-trained rebel unit, known as Division 30, which had been sent into Syria to combat ISIS, had come “under intense attack on Friday from a different hardline Islamist faction … the Nusra Front, which is affiliated with Al Qaeda.”
This is no big news in itself since the Syrian opposition’s myriad rebel factions, one more hardline than the next, are constantly battling one another for control of arms, territory, resources and personnel. But what was new was the fact that the trainees had been caught off guard.
As The Times’s Anne Bernard and Eric Schmitt reported: “American military trainers … did not anticipate an assault from the Nusra Front. In fact, officials said on Friday, they expected the Nusra Front to welcome Division 30 as an ally in its fight against the Islamic State. ‘This wasn’t supposed to happen like this,’ said one former senior American official.”
In other words, Defense Department officials expected Al Nusra to see Division 30 as friends and were perplexed when it didn’t. The Americans “had no known plans to fight the Nusra Front,” the Times went on, adding that, while “allied with Al Qaeda,” Nusra “is seen by many insurgents in Syria as preferable to the Islamic State, and it sometimes cooperates with other less radical groups against both the Islamic State and Syrian government forces.”
According to the London Independent, a “distraught” Division 30 commander whom it managed to catch up with in Turkey said that he and one of the captured trainees had actually met with an Al Nusra leader ten days earlier to work out a truce. “They said that if even one bullet reached them, they would attack us, but we assured them we were there only to fight Daesh [i.e. ISIS],” he said.
But even though Division 30 had kept its part of the bargain, Al Nusra was now beating the captured trainees and parading them in the hot afternoon sun with their shirts pulled over their heads while Al Nusra fighters accused them of “collaborat[ing] with the crusader coalition.”
So when the New York Times announced that the U.S.-Turkish plan “would create what officials from both countries are calling an Islamic State-free zone controlled by relatively moderate Syrian insurgents,” it’s now clear who those “moderates” are: Al Nusra. The zone would be safe for U.S.-trained forces, which numbered only around 60 fighters prior to last week’s attack, but it would be mainly safe for the much larger and more powerful Syrian branch of Al Qaeda.