What will result from Ankara’s attempt to create a “safety zone” in Syrian territory?
Originally appeared at Interpolit, translated by Don Courter exclusively for SouthFront
On Sunday, December 22, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced plans for the creation of a “safety zone”, which he proposes to create in Syrian territory. In a television interview with Al Arabiya, Erdogan stated that Syrian refugees in Turkey, who want to return to their country, will be able to settle in this zone.
“In the first phase, the zone will spread 98 km along the border and will enter 45 km deep into Syrian territory, and we can expand it. This will be a zone, free from terror, in which refugees and displaced people can live, specifically those who are located in Turkey.” said Erdogan
In his opinion, the Turkish government could begin a campaign to organize the means for the realization of this project. In particular — the construction of housing for refugees in a buffer zone.
It is possible to say that Erdogan continued correspondence discussion with Americans. In the beginning of December White House Press-Secretary Joshua Ernest said that the creation of similar zones “would require substantial resources”. “The matter would not cost a few fighters to patrol the area. The defense of such a territory would require significant resources on the ground. But the allocation of ground forces directly contradicts the strategy established by President Barack Obama,” stressed Ernest.
It is necessary to say, on account of the necessity to allocate “considerable ground forces” incorrectly stated by the US press-secretary. Remember: in the beginning of August Turkish foreign deputy Feridun Sinirlioglu said that Washington gave “good will” to the creation of a “safety zone,” and that Turkey and the US will jointly send armed forces to the zone’s defense.
“We and the US have a common understanding of the issue of creating a safety zone. In this zone will be an Arab population and Turks (Turkish peoples, living in Syria). Everyone will be under the defense of the air force in the event of an attack from the “Islamic State,” the Kurdish Party of Democratic Unity, or the Assad Regime”, – said Sinirlioglu.
It is true, the Turkish diplomat did not speak straightforwardly, if he plans to send a Turkish ground contingency to the “safety zone”. Furthermore, he made it clear that questions in defense of the population of the safety zone will be taken up by Syrian opposition.
Washington’s statement disapproved of the speech made by the head of the Turkish Foreign Ministry: they say an agreement has only been reached on the joint American-Turkish base “Injirlik”. Apparently, the question of the creation of a “safety zone” was also discussed, but the Americans avoided specific arrangements.
And so Erdogan again spoke about the creation of a Syrian zone. One must remember: this time, possibly, Ankara will act decisively. The situation in Syria is changing before our eyes as government forces begin pushing ISIS militants. It is possible that the matter may evolve to the partitioning of Syria into zones of occupation. In this situation, it is important for Turkey to assert their interests and the “safety zone” occupies one of the key positions among them.
What stands behind Erdogan’s recent ambitions if the Turkish president decides to establish the “safety zone” without prior arrangement?
– Currently, Erdogan needs enormous foreign policy successes, confidently states the leading researcher of the Institute of International Security Issues at the Russian Academy of Sciences Alexei Fenenko. The last two months have been extremely unsuccessful for the Turkish president. Quarrels with Russia have led to a major crisis on the tourism market and light industry in Turkey. The attempted invasion of Iraq ended in failure, which ended in a disgraceful withdrawal of Turkish troops. Finally, the Turks further damaged their relations with Greece, which felt at odds with the conflict between Russia and Turkey.
This negative political atmosphere is precisely what pushes Erdogan towards immediate action.
– Can the Turkish leader can truly decide on the creation of a “safety zone”?
– I especially fear this measure Erdogan is taking. Everyone knows no one can fearlessly conduct policy in a corner. When conducting unpopular policy, politicians of this type, like Erdogan, may decide to take drastic measures.
– How can this look technically?
– One morning Turks are occupying Syrian territory, and claim that there will be a safety zone. And who, in this case, will be responsible for contriving a “hot” war with the other?!
Next, they begin conversations and diplomatic persuasions that make Ankara’s point of view seem like an unconditional victory. I, once again, strongly fear that the Turks will embark upon such a path.
– How will the US react to this?
– Exactly as when the invasion of Turkish troops into Iraq occurred: they will see that it is Ankara’s doing. If Russia and Syria begin to press and force the Turks to retreat, the Americans will pretend like nothing happened. If, however, Moscow — for various reasons — does not press, Washington will be willing to recognize this Turkish zone.
– But will we press them or not?
– Everything depends on a preliminary agreement with Ankara. I think we will because our relationship with Turkey has very drastically deteriorated. And we must remember: this time, not only Russian air strikes will be enough.
We will need to bring awareness to the defense of Syrian territorial integrity. I think the C-400 anti aircraft missile systems that Russia deployed as a precaution for the Hmeymim Syrian air base will come in handy for such a task.
This means that the risk of mediated military confrontation between Russia and Turkey is very apparent…
– Erdogan’s attempts regarding the readiness to create a “safety zone” created different circumstances at different times, recalls Director of the Research Centre “Near East Caucasus” of the International Institute of the newest states Stanislav Tarasov. Initially the Turks offered to create a buffer zone on northern Syria with the intent of repeating what transpired in Libya. This means that in Syrian territory — the state against which Turkey is working — the Turks intended to place not only refugee camps, but also to shape temporary opposition to the Syrian government. This new government would acquire legitimacy in the eyes of Ankara, and, in the end, would act as one faction in the future of Syria.
But this plan of Ankara failed. Pro Turkish forces of the Syrian opposition attempted and could not gain a foothold in Syrian territory — they effectively worked against the Turks. Moreover, in its own territory, Ankara did not manage to create a suitable atmosphere for future puppet Syrian authorities.
Turkey returned to the secondary idea of a safety zone, when the Russian military arrived in Syria. Ankara then acted with the intent to declare Northern Syrian Territory a no-fly zone, so that there would be no opportunity to provide Syrian Kurds with Air Support.
But this project was rejected by the US. The problem for the Turks was that Washington began to work with the Kurds — Iraqi, Turkish, and Syrian. And thus the Turks had their hands tied.
The third instance of changing circumstances was when the Turks shot down the Russian SU-24M aircraft. One of the major consequences of this incident for Ankara became the demand, at first of Russia and then of the West, to cut off the biggest “window” in 90 kilometers on the Turkish-Syrian border — through which ISIS sympathizing Syrian rebels penetrated freely. Turkey then said that it was physically impossible to move the border. Supposedly it takes thirty-thousand soldiers, plus infrastructure as part of the border towers.
It must be said that through “the window” in the border, Ankara supplied weapons to some groups in Syrian territory. In the first queue — Turks, who openly support Turkey and fight against the Kurds. But this was in contradiction with the US’s plans. Therefore, Americans offered to take the problematic border area under their control with the help of an peacekeeping contingency coalition.
Right then Erdogan was seriously frightened. The fact is that a peacekeeping body, when necessary, would be able to intervene in the course of events in Turkey. For example, they might not allow Turkish regular units to harass Turkish Kurds in the eastern provinces. But such an intervention could contribute to Turkey’s collapse.
– Could it be that the Turks fought for it and ran?
– One could say so. Ankara is still functioning, based on the scenario of the collapse of Syria and Iraq. But the balance has changed, and now pro Turkish forces in Syria are jostling with both the Russian coalition and the West, generally with the US.
In other words, now the Turks are not allowing anyone to create a safety zone in Syria. By themselves, the Turks, I believe, will not come back to Syria. In the end, the Syrian military will be there, and they will strengthen the Russian Air Force. Furthermore, in the event of Turkish intervention, Damascus may join the Kurds.
The problem, again, is the fact that Ankara put all their hopes in the collapse of Syria, but when events began to unravel into a different scenario, it appeared that they were absolutely not ready. Especially because now any statements and attempts by Turkey to create a buffer zone look deeply flawed.
– Does this mean that the efforts of two coalitions provide territorial integrity for Syria?
– No. But the division of Syria will most likely not allow the preservation or territorial integrity of Turkey. I would say, in my estimation, that the point of no return in this area has passed for Ankara.
Yes, Ankara will try to recoup. Most likely, Turkey will receive the retreating ISIS militants onto its territory, and will direct them towards the Southern Caucasus.
Furthermore, for Russia the danger lies in the fact that Turkey, following Russia, has been pulled into the geopolitics of its allies, especially Azerbaijan. Allow me to remind you that Baku lines up with all of its politics in its strategic alliance with Turkey, ignoring any other offers. In the result of this lies the threat of new conflicts on the southern border of the Russian Federation.
The main reason for the plan of the safety zone was to drive a wedge between the Kurdish canton of Afrin and the unified cantons of Kobane and Cizre. The Syrian Kurds, affiliates of the PKK, are building a state on Turkeys southern border. This is the result of Turkeys meddling in Syria. The Turks got something they wanted to avoid at all costs and there is nothing they can do about it. Syrian Kurdistan or West Kurdistan or Rojava is becoming stronger every day. Now Erdogan is hitting the PKK instead as a replacement.