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August 21, 2012, Tuesday

Is Turkey getting too close to the Syrian fire?

On Monday, Stratfor, an influential but also controversial global intelligence company, distributed an article about the implications of an expanded Turkish role in Syria. According to the report, Ankara for weeks has been preparing the public for more Turkish involvement in the conflict that is ripping apart its southern neighbor. The Stratfor analyst warns that more Turkish action inside Syria could trigger a backlash from Syria and Iran. One option for Damascus and Tehran would be to use their good contacts with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and stimulate the Kurdish terrorists to intensify their attacks on targets in Turkey.

Later that same day, a car bomb killed nine people, including three children, in Gaziantep, close to Turkey's border with Syria. The PKK quickly announced that they had nothing to do with the explosion. That is no final proof of their innocence because in similar situations in the past it turned out that autonomous PKK-affiliated groups like the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) were responsible. It does indicate that the PKK does not want to be associated with the killings that took place during Bayram, or the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, a holy month for Muslims. So far nobody has claimed responsibility for the attack and if there is any kind of Syrian or Iranian involvement, probably no one ever will.

Did Stratfor have prior knowledge of the Gaziantep bombing? Of course not. Their article underlined certain potential consequences of Turkey's strong support for the Syrian opposition and its intentions to step up its efforts. Others have made the link before. Stratfor may, however, be correct in its analysis of a heightened risk for Turkey as the civil war in Syria drags on.

In that respect, it is interesting to see what will happen with Turkey's call on the United Nations to create a safe or buffer zone within Syria to accommodate a growing number of refugees. According to Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey is already hosting almost 70,000 Syrians and will run out of space if that number surpasses 100,000.

The idea of buffer zones inside Syria is not a new one. Turkey has been pushing for them for months. In the spring reports were published claiming that Turkey had already discreetly started preparations for such a zone, sending 500 specialized soldiers to the region to look at possible options. A few days ago Davutoğlu again discussed the issue with his US colleague, Hillary Clinton, when she visited İstanbul to coordinate Turkish-American initiatives in Syria. After the meeting, US Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone called for some caution as he stressed that there are still serious legal and practical obstacles. It was not clear, though, whether the ambassador was referring to the idea of buffer zones or to a no-fly zone, an issue that was also discussed.

Whatever the official statements, the reality on the ground appears to be already much messier. In July, Deborah Amos, an American journalist, reported on the NPR website about a refugee camp on the Turkish-Syrian border and quoted a Syrian rebel who was moving easily between Syria and Turkey: “Actually we have a buffer zone now. I mean, it's not declared by the Turkish government. People transport arms freely. The Turks are closing their eyes. We bring our wounded people here; we go back and forth and nobody bothers us at all.”

Other media reports seem to confirm the existence of a large area along the Turkish-Syrian border, most of it on Turkish soil, where people, aid and weapons move into Syria without the Turkish authorities interfering and, maybe even more important, without the Syrians trying to prevent such a free flow. It is a clear indication that most of the border areas are no longer controlled by Damascus. Of course, this is more of a gray zone than an officially declared buffer zone on Syrian soil, the request put forward by Davutoğlu.

Looking at the well-known Russian and Chinese position on territorial integrity, it looks highly unlikely that the UN Security Council will react positively to Turkey's suggestion.

Ankara must be fully aware of this, so the question arises: What will Turkey do next? Muddle on with a de facto open border that allows the Syrian opposition to move freely but puts the burden of the refugees solely on Turkish shoulders? Or ask for American and European assistance in occupying Syrian lands to spread the costs and risks of new refugee flows, knowing that doing so could further trigger the wrath of both Syria and Iran with all the far-reaching and unpleasant consequences that might entail?

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