Selin NASİAfter weeks of intense negotiations, Ankara and Washington have finally finalized a deal to open the İncirlik Airbase to planes in the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Following the agreement reached last month, Turkey and the United States - for the first time - launched manned airstrikes against ISIL in Syria last Wednesday. However, on the issue of a “safe zone,” which Turkey has been insistently seeking since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, the allies still seem to be far from agreeing to a clear framework.
Contradictory statements from both sides with respect to details indicate that despite Turkey’s decision to join the anti-ISIL coalition, the U.S. and Turkey are still pursuing conflicting goals and strategies in Syria. The U.S. administration’s consistent refusal to establish a safe zone contradicts the recent mobilization of rebel groups in the area. Turkish authorities either seem to have negotiated a deal behind the scenes or appear to be going it alone on the plan. Either way, the establishment of a buffer zone along its border – whether defined as a demilitarized safe zone or framed as an ISIL-free zone – presents the real risk that Turkey may also get sucked into the Syrian mire.
According to recent remarks by Undersecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Feridun Sinirlioğlu, Ankara has demanded that the ISIL-free zone be barred to Democratic Union Party (PYD) forces as well, which obviously puts the U.S. administration in a very difficult position, since the PYD is prominent as the only credible land force in Syria and has been cooperating with the U.S. in combating ISIL.
However, Turkey continues to see the PYD as just as dangerous as - or even more dangerous than - ISIL. This threat perception is unlikely to change due to Turkey’s unpleasant memories from the first Gulf War. The U.S. military support for the PYD (an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party - PKK) in Kobane, as well as in its takeover of Tal Abyad, awakened past traumas for Turkey pertaining to the establishment of Kurdistan in Northern Iraq with the U.S.-led enforcement of no-fly zones in the early 1990s. The reason why Turkey has tenaciously pushed for this safe zone plan today is not only to relieve itself of the burden of some of the 1.9 million Syrian refugees now calling Turkey home but also to prevent the establishment of a Syrian Kurdistan along its border with the PYD’s further expansion to the west of the Euphrates River, a move that would unite the three cantons of Rojava.
Whether or not the U.S. and Turkey have agreed on the establishment of a safe zone, there has been a considerable increase in the activities of opposition forces on the ground, pointing to the emergence of a de facto safe zone. Al-Nusra pulled back to the north of Aleppo following a dramatic declaration which stated that it opposed the idea of fighting on the same side as imperial powers, even though they were all fighting against the same enemy. Meanwhile, Ahrar al-Sham and Turkmen brigades have also marched into the area that is slated to become part of the safe zone.
The crucial point regarding the enforcement of the safe zone is how security in the area, designated as a humanitarian corridor, will be maintained after ISIL is entirely removed from the region. It is a conundrum as to whether refugees will agree to move to the safe zone in the first place unless they feel safe enough – to say nothing about issues related to the area’s administration or the coordination of policing. By definition, a safe zone must maintain its neutrality in a military conflict, but the positioning of armed opposition groups in the safe zone is likely to turn the area into a prime target.
Claims that Turkish military forces on Aug. 10 entered the planned zone in Syria via the Öncüpınar/Bab al-Salameh border crossing along with the Sultan Murat Brigade, which is composed of Turkmens, presents a worrying picture, especially when taken in conjunction with pro-government media headlines that cheerfully proclaimed Aleppo as the 82nd province of Turkey. The Turkmen card, which Turkey saves for rainy days as a foreign policy option, is on the table once again – something that is not surprising when nationalist sentiments are also on the rise. The perils of this political gamble loom large: Any attack against our Turkmen brothers in the safe zone could easily spark a military clash and drag Turkey into war.
Turkey has long been the target of criticism for failing to protect its borders against ISIL. Therefore, Turkey’s decision to actively join the anti-ISIL coalition was welcomed as a move that would mend and strengthen relations with the West. However, the fact that Turkey’s air campaign - initiated after the July 20 terrorist attack in Suruç that killed 33 activists - concentrated largely on the PKK instead of ISIL created disappointment on the U.S. side, undermining mutual trust. Critics argue that the Turkish government is now using ISIL as a pretext to fight the Kurds.
For Syria, there is no hope of maintaining its unitary status. As the diplomatic bargaining over dividing what is left of Syria among the parties continues at full speed, Turkey is understandably seeking to carve out a buffer zone to protect its interests. However, this buffer zone runs the risk of inviting violence to spread to Turkish soil instead.
In the end, do we really want to fight for an 82nd province?