Syria 'no-fly zone' not being considered

Turkey has NATO's second largest military and is host for Land Command (LANDCOM).

Local residents watch smoke from an explosion rising over the Syrian city of Kobani as they watch the apparent US-led coalition's airstrike against IS positions in the border region from a hillside on the Turkish side of the border near the Suruc district city of Sanliurfa, Turkey, on 22 October 2014. Picture: EPA.

IZMIR - NATO is not considering establishing a "no-fly zone" in northern Syria, something Turkey has been calling for to alleviate security and humanitarian pressures on its south-eastern borders, one of the alliance's top generals said.

Turkey has NATO's second largest military and is host for Land Command (LANDCOM), which is charged with improving the effectiveness and response time of the alliance's land forces.

Although Turkey has made no formal request to NATO for help in establishing a no-fly zone, it has repeatedly said that willing nations should put one in place to create safe areas in Syria, allowing some of an estimated 1.6 million Syrian refugees to be repatriated.

"A no-fly zone is a resource intensive undertaking... That's not something we're looking at right now in this context," Lieutenant General John Nicholson, the new head of LANDCOM, told Reuters in an interview at his headquarters in the Turkish coastal city of Izmir.

Ankara's plans for establishing so-called "safe zones", with air defence as a key component, have so far received a cool reception from many allies. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius this week expressed support for the idea but said that "there are a lot of people to convince".

Military experts say it would necessitate either agreement from the Syrian government or taking out Damascus' advanced air defence systems.

Such a move would risk dragging western powers further into Syria's three-year-old war, and enrage President Bashar al-Assad's allies, Russia and Iran.

Complicating matters, Assad is using US air strikes as cover for his own air campaign against Syrian rebels, hitting the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa in retaliation for the group's killing of Syrian soldiers.

Disagreement over a no-fly zone is part of wider divisions between Turkey and its western allies over how to tackle the instability sweeping the Middle East.

Turkey wants its enemy Assad removed from power, and believes focussing on the radical Sunni Islamic State group is treating the symptoms rather than the disease, namely lawlessness and brutality inside the power vacuum of today's Syria.

A recent visit to Turkey by US Vice President Joe Biden saw both sides keen to highlight their points of agreement, but there was little sign of any major policy shifts.

During the visit, a US official acknowledged the challenge of having Syrian regime and Islamic State fighters close to Turkey's border but warned against getting fixated on "buzzwords" like no-fly-zone.

"We may or may not end up with certain labels. It's the objectives, though, that we share in common," the official said.

Disquiet over the direction of US policy in Syria is being seen as a factor in the abrupt departure this week of US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who had apparently become frustrated with a lack of strategy.

Despite widespread criticism that the current US plan of air strikes and support for opposition groups falls far short of what is required, there is little appetite for a more direct role in the Syrian conflict.

NATO is monitoring events in the Middle East, but is making no plans to play an active role there, Nicholson said.

"I'm confident having fought in a counter-insurgency (in Afghanistan) for years and studying this threat to the south that NATO would be more than capable of handling it ... (But) we only make plans at the request of our member states and that's not something we're working on right now."