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August 22, 2011, Monday

A buffer zone with Syria in the works

In the last National Security Council (MGK) meeting held on Aug. 18, members of this top decision-making body on national security matters discussed the possibility of establishing a “buffer zone” along the Syrian border in case there is a wave of refugees fleeing in droves to the Turkish side.

In a nearly five-hour-long deliberation, the contingency planning for a buffer zone was studied carefully and drawn up upon the possibility that the Bashar Al-Assad regime will likely fail to stem violence in the turbulent country. All hell will break loose when Syria destabilizes and a civil war starts that is fought along ethnic and sectarian fault lines, sending millions of Syrians to the Turkish border to seek safe haven. That is why Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan described what has been happening in Syria since March as very much an “internal affair of Turkey.”


Turks still remembers the aftermath of the first Gulf War during which almost a million Iraqi Kurds flocked to Turkey following Saddam's crackdown in northern Iraq. It caught Turkish authorities unprepared and created numerous problems within Turkey. Ankara did not repeat the same mistake in the second Iraq war when it drew up plans to create buffer zones inside Iraq, using already established military outposts there as logistical command centers. Thankfully, it did not come to that as Saddam fought the battle mostly in central and southern Iraq, while Kurds enjoyed the protection provided by the US-led coalition in the north.


In the present case, the buffer zone would be set up first in the “no man's land” between the Syrian and Turkish lines of demarcation and would be extended further into Syrian territory if needed. Considering that the width of the no man's land on the Turkish side varies from 300 to 1,000 meters along the Syrian border, the possibility of extending it onto Syrian soil is quite likely. What is more, there is not much of an alternative as to where to set up these refugee centers as most of the 877-kilometer-long border still remains heavily mined. There are some pockets of the border areas where mines were cleared by both sides and are available to use. But that would not be enough.


The good news is that most of the land near the border falls under the legal category of “Forbidden Military Zone,” meaning that the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) supervises the public land. Some of this land was farmland before and owned by private parties, but it was all nationalized during the 1956 demarcation. The TSK has cleared mines from some of this land, but most of it remains heavily mined. According to Turkey's commitments to Ottawa mine treaty obligations, all these mines should be cleared by 2014, which seems highly unlikely at the current pace. Amazingly, Syrian farmers took it upon themselves to clear mines in the fertile buffer zone, totaling 250 million square meters, and planted cotton and olive trees.


As many restive towns in Syria located in the north are close to the Turkish border, the risk is greater for Ankara than other neighboring countries in the east and the south, i.e., Iraq and Jordan. The Turkish policy of open borders also differs from others as we saw in the June refugee crisis. "Turkey is the sole country to declare an open border policy. This is indeed a very impressive operational approach," Carol Batchelor, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said of Turkey at the time.


In a way, Turkey ran drills during the June crisis that saw over 10,000 Syrians who fled from violence to seek safe haven in Turkey. It was a small-scale operation and was manageable on its own, but the refugee crisis looming on the horizon would dwarf what we saw back then and will undoubtedly require massive contingency planning. Officials from the Prime Ministry's Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate (AFAD) are telling us that they are ready to immediately mobilize to respond to a wave of refugees crossing the border as well as to evacuate Turkish citizens and foreign nationals stuck in the violence in Syria. AFAD received much praise for handling evacuations from Egypt and Libya earlier this year.


To claim legitimacy and dismiss accusations of hostile intentions, Turkey would likely pursue this approach in coordination with international and regional bodies. International law, especially articles and additional protocols of the 1949 Geneva Conventions as well as the newly developed UN doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), certainly allows Turkey to take action to protect civilians during the conflict. Though Turkey will take the lead and initiative, any buffer zone would likely be operated with the UNHCR with members from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) pitching in, either by committing manpower or providing financial resources.


This would be first and foremost a humanitarian obligation on Turkey's part and should not be confused with anything else. Designated buffer zones would help reduce casualties in heavily mined border areas. In the absence of buffer zones, Syrians would nonetheless push across border areas where it might be dangerous. As such, buffer zones would remove the need to attempt hazardous journeys and alleviate concerns at least to some extent in what otherwise would be seen as a catastrophic humanitarian crisis.


Lest Damascus adopt the “scorched-earth-policy” with respect to civilians in border areas, Turkey, with Europe's largest army, would have no problem in providing firepower to protect and secure refugee centers. We all know what happened in so-called safe havens in Bosnia, Rwanda and northern Iraq where hundreds and thousands were butchered despite promises of protection from the UN or occupying powers. Turks do not want anything like this on their conscience and will do everything in their power to prevent the Assad regime from going after fleeing refugees.


The younger Assad should recall how Turkey, frustrated with the terror originating in its southern neighbor, threatened military action against his country in the late 1990s during which he was busy climbing up the military ranks to replace his older brother, Basil, who unexpectedly died in a car crash, forcing his father Assad to nominate the junior Assad, his only son, as the rightful heir. Like father, son Assad knows very well that Turkey means business and that it does not fool around.


It is true that Turkish officials have openly said they are against establishing buffer zones along the Syrian border, and we have reported what they said in this newspaper. Considering that Ankara does not want this crisis to escalate into a full-blown civil war, statements like these were not unexpected at all. However, that does not mean Turks are naïve and have no fallback positions whatsoever when push comes to shove. Let's just pray it never comes to that.