A Turkish Buffer Zone in Syria? Neither the Generals nor the U.S. Want It

ISIS is the problem, but of course Ankara and Erdogan are obsessed with the Kurds.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
Turkish soldiers stand guard near the Mursitpinar border gate in Sanliurfa province as smoke rises in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani in the background, June 27, 2015.
Turkish soldiers stand guard near the Mursitpinar border gate in Sanliurfa province as smoke rises in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani in the background, June 27, 2015.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Turkey and Syria gained a new status this week. Customs officers will now man the Syrian side, checking the contents of trucks entering and leaving Turkey. “Interior Ministry” officials will stamp passports and laissez-passer documents.

Turkish soldiers gather around a bonfire in Mursitpinar, close to where ISIS is fighting Kurdish forces, Dec. 1 2014.Credit: AFP

The iron gate was restored after being damaged in the fighting; it now looks like any other crossing between the two countries, except that the officials on the Syrian side aren’t from the government. They’re rebels who’ve captured Idlib Province.

But that’s not the whole picture. There’s also the Ahrar al-Sham militia, which constitutes part of the Al-Fatah Army, which in turn includes radical Islamist militias, some of them on the list of terror groups.

These, by the way, are the same “moderate militias” the Western countries, particularly the United States, are willing to cooperate with. The Bab al-Hawa crossing serves as a test case for formal ties between Turkey and Idlib, where the people have started using the Turkish lira as legal tender. If this model works, the sides hope to expand to other crossings in rebel hands.

In contrast to this normalization, Turkey is widening its military campaign against the Kurds in Syria, whom it views as a graver threat than the Islamic State. The Turks fear a Kurdish state on their border.

The zone, declared autonomous by the Kurds, is run by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, which supports the PKK — declared a terror group by Turkey. Reports of Kurds expelling Arabs and replacing them with Kurds feed this fear. Kurdish denials of these reports hardly impress Turkey.

“We won’t allow the establishment of a Kurdish state on our border,” declared Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who’s in the middle of coalition talks. If not a Kurdish state, what about an ISIS state?

The political battle inside Turkey has been affected by what happens on the Syrian border, culminating last week with leaks in the Turkish opposition press about Ankara’s intention to invade Syria, set up a security zone for refugees and thereby prevent Kurdish control of the border zones.

The Turkish opposition made clear the interim Turkish government has no authority to go to war in Syria. Davutoglu countered that in matters of defense the government has full authority to take steps it deems necessary.

He was convinced that as on previous occasions, national security would suffice for the government to do as it wished. Turkey was planning to send 18,000 troops 30 kilometers deep and 90 to 110 kilometers wide to set up refugee camps, but the plan was actually designed to set up a buffer zone between the two Kurdish-controlled areas.

But Erdogan realized that not only did the opposition — some of them potential coalition partners — object, but the army wasn’t rushing to battle. The high command demanded clearly written directives from the politicians for fear of violating international law. It also demanded that the government consult with Russia and Iran to ensure that Turkish military involvement wouldn’t spur direct involvement by those countries.

It’s a weighty argument, though the army didn’t hesitate a few months ago to enter Syria to capture the ancient tomb of Suleyman Shah and rescue Turkish soldiers guarding it. The main reason for the army’s objection this time was the understanding that any invasion of Syria to establish a buffer zone meant long-term involvement in the Syrian war.

The public dispute between the army and government laid bare something in the wake of Erdogan’s expulsion of the army from politics: The army still has widespread support and can challenge the president, even after Erdogan made changes to the high command.

Erdogan held an urgent meeting of the National Security Council, resulting in the decision not to invade Syria. At the same time, Turkey deployed tanks and other armor along the border near the cities of Sanliurfa and Gaziantep, a few kilometers from the Syrian border where the Syrian Kurds are in control.

Despite Erdogan’s efforts, these Kurdish militias, which have recruited a few hundred volunteers from abroad, are winning. The fighters have driven Islamic State forces out of dozens of villages along the border, helped from the air by Western, particularly American, planes.

American praise for the Kurds showed Erdogan that the Kurdish threat isn't only on the border. The Kurds have become Washington’s ally, and Erdogan’s plan to block their control of the border region is doomed to failure. Special U.S. envoy John Allen visited Turkey to express Washington’s objections to a Turkish operation in Syria.

Officially, Allen discussed possible military cooperation with Turkey, but in practice Washington clarified its opposition to a buffer zone and warned against Turkey’s continued cooperation with radical forces in Syria, based on reports that the Islamic State continues to use Turkish border crossings to reach Syria.

The United States is struggling to establish rebel ground forces to operate in tandem with airstrikes. The effort to recruit rebels for this grandiose plan in the war against the Islamic State, for which Congress has allocated $500 million to train 3,000 fighters, is facing intense difficulties. According to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, only 60 of 7,000 volunteers have been trained so far.

While the air campaign has stung some of the Islamic State’s income sources and halted its progress at least in Iraq, it’s far from turning things around. The control territory between the militias and the government is becoming permanent, without any side capable of making a decisive blow.

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