WASHINGTON (AFP) - The United States and Britain are willing to "examine" the idea of creating a safe haven along Turkey's border with Syria, their top diplomats said Wednesday.
"The buffer zone is an idea that's out there, it's worth examining, it's worth looking at very, very closely," US Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters, in what appears to be a U-turn in America's position that could mark a significant shift in American military engagement in the region.
Turkey has been calling for a buffer zone to protect its border, and also provide some security for Syrian Kurds fleeing the onslaught by ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) militants.
But during the past three years of the civil war to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Obama administration has consistently ruled out establishing a such a safe haven to protect fleeing Syrians, saying a no-fly zone would be too complicated to set up and patrol.
Retired General John Allen, who is in charge of building a US-led coalition to fight ISIS, is due to hold talks in Turkey with US pointman in Iraq Brett McGurk on Thursday and Friday amid battles for the Kurdish border town of Kobane in Syria.
"We are at the stage of exploring this," acknowledged British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, after talks with Kerry at the State Department.
"We'd have to explore with our other allies and partners what is meant by a buffer zone, how such a concept would work. But I certainly wouldn't want to rule it out at this stage." Kerry referred to the millions of refugees who have fled across the Syrian border.
"This should not be a problem which is thrust onto Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, where they bear an incredible burden," he said.
"If Syrian citizens can return to Syria and be protected in an area across the border, there's a lot that would commend that," the top US diplomat added.
"But at the same time, you'd have to guarantee safety, that there wouldn't be attacks by the government... so it needs a thorough examination. We're all in favour of looking at this very closely." France said it backed a proposal by Ankara to create a safe zone along its border with Syria to ensure Turkey's security and host refugees fleeing Islamic State militants.
In a phone call with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President Francois Hollande "gave his support to the idea... of creating a buffer zone between Syria and Turkey to host and protect displaced people", the French presidency said in a statement.