Turkey mulls Syria buffer zone: What’s the trigger?

In this Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2014 file photo, fighters from the Free Syrian Army, left, and the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), center, join forces to fight ISIS group militants in Kobani, Syria. (AP)

In a bid to protect itself from the advances of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Syrian Kurdish YPG armed forces in northern Syria, Ankara recently mobilized additional troops and deployed tanks and anti-craft missiles to its southern border.

This is seen by pro-government newspapers in Turkey as a prelude to unilaterally carving a buffer zone inside the Syrian Jarablus region, which is controlled by ISIS.

The speculation has sparked questions about the implications of a possible military intervention that involves violating Syria’s territorial integrity.

On Friday, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said there was no immediate plan for an incursion into Syria, but his country would respond if its security were threatened.

Amid the speculation, John Allen, U.S. special envoy for the coalition against ISIS, visited Ankara to hold talks with Turkish officials.

Kurds

Ankara’s main unease seems to be a possible Kurdish state or autonomous region in northern Syria, which could embolden Turkey’s own Kurdish community.

Syrian Kurdish fighters recently pushed ISIS out of the strategic border town of Tal Abyad.

In response, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would never allow the creation of a Kurdish state in northern Syria or southern Turkey.

Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), said there were formidable political, diplomatic, legal and military obstacles to Turkish intervention in Syria.

“So I interpret these recent statements more as a signal by Turkish policymakers of their dissatisfaction with the lack of Western engagement… than a real intent to engineer a cross-border operation,” Ulgen told Al Arabiya News.

He said the timing of the rhetoric was due to recent changes on the ground, with Syrian Kurds expanding their territorial gains, and ISIS intent on consolidating its control of the region near the Turkish border.

“There is also the tangible risk that the infighting in Syria could give rise to new waves of refugees. As the country that officially hosts the largest number of refugees, Turkey is eager to develop solutions to forestall the arrival of new refugees from Syria,” he said.

Turkey hosts some 2 million Syrian refugees, which has created a serious economic and social burden.

Risks

Experts told Al Arabiya News that unilateral intervention by Turkey was not likely to garner the blessing of the international community, and may create a rift between Ankara and its NATO allies.

Akin Unver, an expert on Middle East politics at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, said the Turkish armed forces and the public were reluctant to be dragged into a military adventure in Syria.

He said such an intervention would drag Turkey into a long-term, low-intensity conflict.

“We aren’t sure yet whether such a conflict will have any winners… A Turkish incursion into Syria will make the Turkish military a target,” Unver told Al Arabiya News.

He added that if Turkey targeted both the Kurds and ISIS in northern Syria, it would exacerbate the power vacuum there.

Being on the verge of forming a coalition government, Turkey is expected to soon reframe its Syria policy, including border management.

Nihat Ali Ozcan, a retired major now serving as a security analyst at Ankara-based think-tank TEPAV, said Damascus would react to Turkish troops if a buffer zone was implemented on Syrian territory.

“The Syrian state still has a considerable air force mainly supported by Russia, so there’s a risk of retaliation. In addition to this conventional reaction, Turkey would have to face hybrid and asymmetrical enemies in the region that use guerilla tactics,” Ozcan told Al Arabiya News.

“Turkey’s NATO allies don’t want to get trapped in such a complex political and military challenge.”

Ozcan said the extent of U.S. support for Syrian Kurds against ISIS is worrying Turkey.

“Turkey can no longer bear the serious integration burden of so many refugees, which compels policy-makers to ask the international community to take further humanitarian responsibility,” he noted.

Much criticized by its Western allies for its loose border management, the Turkish army announced on July 7 that the previous day it had detained some 800 people trying to enter illegally from Syria.

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