Turkey and the United States have officially agreed to set up an Islamic State-free safe zone along a stretch of the Syrian and Turkish border in an attempt to allow thousands of displaced Syrians to return to the area, an administration official confirmed Tuesday afternoon.
The move thrusts Turkey into a front-line position in the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State after more than a year in which Ankara has dragged its feet in the U.S.-led coalition's war against the extremist group.
"They have come to us and asked us for help, and we have agreed to help," an administration official said. "We're very encouraged about this opening with Turkey. We think it's a significant development in the ongoing campaign" against the Islamic State.
The official denied that the U.S. air cover would amount to a no-fly zone, insisting instead that it will be designed to form a safe haven to kick out the Islamic State and allow people from the Syrian and Turkish border communities to return to the area.
The U.S. and Turkey have yet to determine the details of exactly how they will create and operate the 68-mile safe zone along the northern Syria border of Turkey. But the U.S. will continue to conduct airstrikes in the area, which the Pentagon can now accelerate after Ankara last week agreed that they could be launched from bases in Turkey.
No U.S. or Turkish ground forces will be used to clear Islamic State forces from the area, but Syrian opposition forces are expected to step in to serve that role.
Administration officials would not say whether and how thoroughly the U.S. would vet the moderate Syrian opposition forces before using them to clear the border area.
"There are a lot of groups on the ground, there are a lot of groups that we can work with," the official said. "The answer is we'll see … We have learned that when we have a group on the ground that can maneuver, we can be devastatingly effective against" the Islamic State.
Turkey began a tactical shift to battle the Islamic State last week, when Turkish airplanes began launching strikes against the group's targets and then started allowing the U.S. to use its strategically located Incirlik Air Base.
But Turkey's stepped up presence in to the global fight against the Islamic State has its own serious set of complications. U.S. backed Kurdish fighters operating in Syria have been the most forceful against the extremist terrorist group. Kurdish forces from the People's Protection Unit, know as the YPG, now control a large swatch of the Syria-Turkish border areas.
The YPG is affiliated with the Kurdistan Worker's Party, or PKK, which has launched insurgent attacks against the Turks from inside their own country for decades.
The PKK recently launched an attack against Turkish targets, and last week the Turks responded by launching strikes against the Kurds in Northern Iraq.
White House and State Department officials last week said Turkey has a right to defend itself against the PKK and was not targeting YPG or PKK forces operating in Syria against the Islamic State.
"We recognize Turkey's right to self-defense," administration official said Wednesday.
Senior officials from the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State will meet in Canada later this week to focus on improving the campaign's effectiveness, the administration officials said.
Turkish officials will attend the closed-door sessions in Quebec City Thursday. Retired Gen. John Allen, whom Obama appointed as a coalition envoy, will run the meetings.