Buffer zone in Syria is off Turkish agenda

Buffer zone in Syria is off Turkish agenda

Turkey has taken the option of establishing a buffer zone for refugees on the Syrian side of the border off its agenda, unless there is a United Nations initiative, official sources told Hurriyet Daily News March 16.
The news came after Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay announced that Turkey was preparing to establish a buffer zone in order to host refugees on the run from the clashes in Syria, and the head of Turkish Red Crescent Ahmet Lütfü Akar said that Turkish plans are to be ready for up to 500 thousand refugees.

The statements raised questions as to whether Turkey was considering setting up camps in Syrian territory, as had been hinted by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in a parliamentary speech late 2011. He said that Turkey could consider getting involved in a military action in Syria only as part of a UN initiative based on humanitarian needs or a if massive flood of refugees was in question: a “flood” numbering in the hundreds of thousands, not the thousands, was the scale mentioned. Then, Turkish Foreign Ministry sources told journalists, Turkey might consider protecting the refugees within Syrian territory, where the protection could involve the use of Turkish troops in another country.

Davutoğlu carried out critical talks on Syria with his counterparts, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, after that statement. The Turkish position was fine-tuned during a meeting with Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan (toward the end of his recovery from his surgery), prior to the National Security Board (MGK) meeting chaired by President Abdullah Gül on February 27, 2012, to be finalized there.

One diplomatic source explained the final position to HDN, saying that it reflects a desire to remain within the limits of international law, since setting up a zone in Syrian territory protected by Turkish troops without Syrian approval was assessed to be “a clear violation of international law.”

Sources told HDN that President Gül in particular was not in favor of unilateral military action of any kind regarding Syria. That is not much different from Prime Minister Erdoğan, who said on Friday that Turkey would be closely observing the developments regarding a joint statement to be prepared by the USA and Russia on Syria, before taking further action. He also underlined the importance he gives to the “Friends of Syria” meeting to be held in Istanbul on April 2. 

Yet Ankara keeps increasing the pressure on Damascus by other means. On Friday it called for Turkish citizens not to travel to Syria and preferably to leave the country, backing this up with a decision to stop providing consular services there by March 22.

So when Atalay mentioned the buffer zone, we can be almost sure that he was not talking about a zone in Syria, protected by Turkish troops; he is simply talking about refugee camps in Turkish territory close to the Syrian border. “The final decision would be Erdoğan’s,” one source said, “But we have no plans for military involvement, unless there is a UN initiative”.