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Turkey buffer zone may be game changer for Syria

A growing number of Syrian refugees are flooding into Turkish territory, where they continue to protest against Assad.

LONDON: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s suggested humanitarian “buffer zone” for refugees in Syria could prove a turning point in the conflict, opening the door to foreign intervention in the year-old uprising.

Turkey has been wary of raising the prospect of military action, but with the body count rising and growing numbers of refugees crossing its borders – some 15,000 so far, including 1,000 in the space of 24 hours Thursday – it is seen being pushed ever closer. Memories of 500,000 flooding onto Turkish territory from Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War are still vivid.

While there has been widespread speculation on Arab states – particularly Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia – arming the opposition, actually sending Turkish troops into Syrian territory would be a major step. Ankara would seek cast-iron international backing for any such move.

Forces loyal to President Bashar Assad might voluntarily withdraw rather than face the Turkish military, but it is possible that at the very least some might remain behind to attack what could be seen as a foreign invasion force.

“If implemented, it may be a game changer,” says Anthony Skinner, Middle East analyst at U.K.-based political risk consultancy Maplecroft. “Protecting such a zone ... requires the deployment of Turkish ground forces and this will be very significant in terms of the overall security dynamic and clearly benefit the opposition.”

While the stated intention of any troop deployment would be to protect refugees and allow delivery of humanitarian aid, the fledgling Free Syrian Army would almost certainly use such an area as its own safe haven. Turkish-controlled territory could become an area in which they could arm, train and potentially coordinate attacks on government forces elsewhere in Syria.

So far, the opposition has had little success seizing territory and has struggled in the face of the government’s overwhelming firepower – used to devastating effect particularly in the siege of parts of Homs.

With Western powers including the United States reluctantly examining their own intervention plans for Syria, any Turkish operation might find support from other NATO members. At the very least, U.S. forces based in Turkey might well be drawn into providing logistics and intelligence support.

A true United Nations mandate for such action appears almost impossible, with Russia and China likely to block any such resolution. With Russia already providing arms and fuel to long-term ally Assad, Turkey could also find itself drawn into increasing confrontation particularly with Moscow.

“Ankara has been talking about intervention for quite some time, but unless it can secure wider international participation it remains very unlikely,” said Julien Barnes-Dacey, a Middle East specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “There is a definite risk that Assad could resist the move militarily, trying to make it too costly an exercise for the Turks and others to pursue.”

Nevertheless, the lesson from last year’s Libya war would seem to be that appetite for foreign intervention can ramp up surprisingly fast. On Friday, Tunisia said it had no objection to the idea of a buffer zone, perhaps a sign of growing support for the idea in the Arab world.

Turkey’s Erdogan said the April 2 “Friends in Syria” meeting of interested Western and Middle Eastern states would come up with a “very different result” to this month’s Tunisian meeting, widely seen as achieving little.

While the Libya campaign itself was no easy task, military strategists say any kind of campaign in Syria would be much more complex. Not only is the country itself and its population considerably larger, but its military is much more sophisticated than that of Moammar Gadhafi. Sophisticated air defenses would make operating drones much more difficult, while targets much further from the coast would be harder to hit.

Perhaps even more crucially, a repeat of the crippling sanctions and NATO blockade that starved Gadhafi of oil export income and vital fuel imports is rendered almost impossible by Russian and Chinese opposition.

For now, opposition forces also appear much weaker than those of the early Libyan campaign where they captured much of eastern Libya relatively easily and simply required NATO air support to hold government forces back.

One potential scenario for Syria, experts say, would be a rough repeat of the “safe area” set up in the northern Iraqi region of Kurdistan in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War. A handful of ground troops and air power – together with regular Turkish forces – were able to maintain it as an independent enclave.

“Even if established, a buffer zone wouldn’t immediately change the wider balance of power,” said Barnes-Dacey at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “While being a significant loss to Assad and a potential area for the opposition to mobilize, [it] wouldn’t threaten his hold or continued use of violence across the country at large.”

With its own Kurdish minority also demanding and occasionally fighting for self-rule, Turkey has more to lose than most countries if Syria’s unraveling produces a wider chaos and regional redrawing of borders. It will also worry that any weapons supplied to Kurdish groups within Syria could eventually end up being used against the Turkish state.

But the greatest impact any outside military intervention could have would be within the Syrian ruling elite itself. Already, there is growing talk of military defections including a number of senior officers fleeing to Turkey. If foreign action strengthens the narrative that Assad’s time is running out, that could intensify.

“If Turkey is drawn more directly into the conflict, then Bashar Assad has reason to be concerned about his neck,” said Maplecroft’s Skinner.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 17, 2012, on page 9.

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