A Security Zone Designed to Thwart Kurdish Autonomy

Washington has let Turkey establish an anti-ISIS buffer zone in Syria. It’s a dual-purpose buffer zone.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Turkish soldiers patrol near the border with Syria, July 24, 2015.
Turkish soldiers patrol near the border with Syria, July 24, 2015.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Only a few passengers were waiting for the minibus that runs from the Turkish city of Nizip near the Euphrates River to the border town of Carchemish, which overlooks the Syrian city of Jarabulus.

“Before ISIS captured Jarabulus, minibuses would leave almost every hour. The border was open and we made a good living from the trips and from business with the Syrian side,” says Piras, who still lives in his hometown of Carchemish even though “over half its people have abandoned it.”

The renovated train station also seems to recall better days. In the past the line from Istanbul to Baghdad, built by German engineers, passed through there, but now it’s a combat zone. On the other side of the border, the Islamic State is in control.

According to reports from Syria, the Islamic State planted mines around Jarabulus, where some streets were covered with plastic sheeting to conceal the group’s operations from the cameras of Turkish or Western jets. And Islamic State people were seen digging trenches in preparation for a battle against the Kurds, who are closing in from the east and south.

But not only the Islamic State is worried about the battle that might expel it from this key border town. Turkey is worried that Syrian Kurdish forces might take over. Such domination would create a contiguous Kurdish territory that would begin in northeast Syria, continue via the Kobani region, and end around the city of Azaz in the east.

Turkey fears that such contiguity would put the Kurds in control along most of its border with Syria, and would even encourage the Syrian Kurds to declare an autonomous district that Turkey would see as a political threat. The paradox is that the Islamic State, against which Turkey joined the fight last week, is considered the “defense line” against the Kurdish threat.

Here too lies the dilemma of the United States, which on the one hand sees the Syrian Kurds as allies who have displayed an impressive ability to eliminate the Islamic State in parts of northern Syria. On the other hand, Washington needs Ankara’s permission to use Turkish air bases in the fight the Islamic State.

To square the circle, the United States agreed to let Turkey fight “Kurdish terror” and establish a buffer zone 30 to 50 kilometers deep and about 100 kilometers (62 miles) long. Not coincidentally, this security strip overlaps the area of Kurdish control. In that way the buffer zone won’t only be a safe haven for refugees, it will let Turkey neutralize Kurdish aspirations for a region of their own.

Washington, which understands the Turkish manipulation, is gritting its teeth. It condemns the terror of the Kurdish underground, the PKK, on Turkish territory, but it continues to help the Syrian Kurds in their war against the Islamic State.

Even NATO, whose North Atlantic Council was convened by Turkey to provide backing for Ankara’s operations against the Kurds, was forced to support Turkey’s war “against terror of any kind,” without specifically mentioning Kurdish terror. NATO fears that Turkey will drag it into a conflict that stems from a country’s internal political problems.

We can assume the European Union considers itself lucky that it hasn’t let the Turks in yet, because under the present circumstances, the EU would be obligated to come to Turkey’s defense and become actively involved in a Mideast war. The absurdity is that Turkey, which until now eschewed military intervention in Syria, even when tens of thousands of people were being slaughtered on its border, is now the country demanding protection and cooperation.

There’s no arguing that Turkey is waging a difficult and bloody struggle against the PKK, whose presence on and within its border is a genuine threat. In 2012, this threat compelled President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to conduct a dialogue with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and seek a reconciliation agreement. The “peace process,” as those negotiations are called, achieved a cease-fire and approached a historic agreement.

But the Kurds say the government failed to craft a law allowing for a pardon or at least protection for PKK activists, while Ankara says it was the Kurds who violated the cease-fire by attacking Turkish policemen and soldiers. While the truth of these narratives is a matter of interpretation, Erdogan has declared that there is no longer any point in continuing the “peace process.”

Kurdish activists told Haaretz they’re having a hard time understanding Erdogan’s logic. “If PKK terror is the threat, negotiations with it could actually lead to a solution — especially when for decades Turkey hasn’t managed to eliminate the organization,” says an activist from the pro-Kurdish party that did surprisingly well in the June election.

“Erdogan now wants to inflame ultranationalist policy to prepare the ground for early elections, which may bring his party a greater victory this time,” the activist says. It won’t be the first time that in Turkey and elsewhere, nurturing the winds of war is an integral part of shaking up politics.

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