Days after the U.S. and Turkey announced a breakthrough deal to fight together against the Islamic State, U.S. officials are insisting that — contrary to reports — there are definitely no U.S. plans for a “safe zone” inside Syria. In fact, there really is no “zone,” and there is no plan to keep the area “safe.”

This confusion is a microcosm of the disorganized U.S. approach to the Islamic State threat since last summer. Each incremental escalation into which the U.S. gets dragged in Syria seems poorly thought out and even more poorly explained. Until the Barack Obama administration can reconcile the different objectives among the members of its anti-Islamic-State coalition, the various partners will continue to work at cross-purposes. In this case, for the U.S., the Islamic State is the one and only priority; for Turkey, the imperative is protecting civilians from Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime and eventually forcing its exit.

For the last week, various U.S. and Turkish officials have been contradicting each other in public and private over whether or not the White House agreed to a safe zone inside Syria, something it has long resisted. Major U.S. newspapers even published makeshift maps showing what the anti-Islamic-State safe zone would cover. But in a conference call with reporters Tuesday, three senior administration officials made it clear that there are no U.S. 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.

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